ANALYSIS PUBLIC OPINION; Victory Still in the Balance in the Battle for Hearts and Minds ; L Latest Opinion Polls in the US Show Shift in Favour of Attacking Iraq, but in Europe Electorates Remain Unpersuaded by the Case for War

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GEORGE BUSH and Jacques Chirac appear to be at loggerheads about what should be done next in Iraq. And there is a gulf between American and European public opinion on the subject, with Britain uneasily in the middle.

Opinion polls in the United States after Colin Powell's address to the UN Security Council, suggest support for war has hardened among Americans. A Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today showed 63 per cent favour invading Iraq, the highest figure since the crisis began last summer. An ABC News poll puts support at 66 per cent.

And US public opinion looks as though it could swing yet further in favour of military action. Just 23 per cent say the US should not send troops even if the UN were to back a second resolution.

In much of Europe voters are reluctant for military action even if backed by the UN. An IFOP poll shows 77 per cent of people in France believe their country should stay out of the war even if the UN backs action against Saddam Hussein. And a Forsa poll found 84 per cent of Germans oppose military action in Iraq.

Continental Europe's reluctance to back a war is not confined to the countries dismissed as "old Europe" by the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. The prime ministers of Italy and Spain, Silvio Berlusconi and Jose Maria Aznar, have been far more sympathetic towards Washington's stance. Yet recent polls show two-thirds of Italians and Spaniards oppose war even if sanctioned by the UN.

US public opinion is calling for war-war, and continental Europe for jaw-jaw, but British opinion is more divided. An ICM poll for the BBC showed yesterday that 49 per cent would back action with UN backing but 45 per cent would still remain opposed.

Other polls by Populus and YouGov suggested UN backing might help generate a clear-majority support for British involvement in such a war. But with perhaps only one in 10 willing to back war without a UN resolution, it is clear Tony Blair will have a uphill task to secure the kind of public backing George Bush enjoys, if Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin cannot be persuaded in favour of a second UN resolution.

Not that Mr Bush can afford to ignore the UN. The latest ABC News poll found only a half of Americans support an attack on Iraq if it were opposed by the UN. Gallup puts the proportion who favour action in the absence of UN support at no more than 39 per cent. In short, even President Bush could face significant disquiet at home if he decides to abandon the UN route.

But why are Americans apparently so much more willing to back military action? …