A Strident Minority: Anti-Bush US Troops in Iraq ; Though Military Personnel Lean Conservative, Some Vocally Support Kerry - or at Least a Strategy for Swift Withdrawal

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Inside dusty, barricaded camps around Iraq, groups of American troops in between missions are gathering around screens to view an unlikely choice from the US box office: "Fahrenheit 9-11," Michael Moore's controversial documentary attacking the commander-in-chief.

"Everyone's watching it," says a Marine corporal at an outpost in Ramadi that is mortared by insurgents daily. "It's shaping a lot of people's image of Bush."

The film's prevalence is one sign of a discernible countercurrent among US troops in Iraq - those who blame President Bush for entangling them in what they see as a misguided war. Conventional wisdom holds that the troops are staunchly pro-Bush, and many are. But bitterness over long, dangerous deployments is producing, at a minimum, pockets of support for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, in part because he's seen as likely to withdraw American forces from Iraq more quickly.

"[For] 9 out of 10 of the people I talk to, it wouldn't matter who ran against Bush - they'd vote for them," said a US soldier in the southern city of Najaf, seeking out a reporter to make his views known. "People are so fed up with Iraq, and fed up with Bush."

With only three weeks until an Oct. 11 deadline set for hundreds of thousands of US troops abroad to mail in absentee ballots, this segment of the military vote is important - symbolically, as a reflection on Bush as a wartime commander, and politically, as absentee ballots could end up tipping the balance in closely contested states.

It is difficult to gauge the extent of disaffection with Bush, which emerged in interviews in June and July with ground forces in central, northern, and southern Iraq. No scientific polls exist on the political leanings of currently deployed troops, military experts and officials say.

To be sure, broader surveys of US military personnel and their spouses in recent years indicate they are more likely to be conservative and Republican than the US civilian population - but not overwhelmingly so.

A Military Times survey last December of 933 subscribers, about 30 percent of whom had deployed for the Iraq war, found that 56 percent considered themselves Republican - about the same percentage who approved of Bush's handling of Iraq. Half of those responding were officers, who as a group tend to be more conservative than their enlisted counterparts.

Among officers, who represent roughly 15 percent of today's 1.4 million active duty military personnel, there are about eight Republicans for every Democrat, according to a 1999 survey by Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver. Enlisted personnel, however - a disproportionate number of whom are minorities, a population that tends to lean Democratic - are more evenly split. Professor Feaver estimates that about one third of enlisted troops are Republicans, one third Democrats, and the rest independents, with the latter group growing.

Pockets of ambivalence

"The military continues to be a Bush stronghold, but it's not a stranglehold," Feaver says. Three factors make the military vote more in play for Democrats this year than in 2000, he says: the Iraq war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tense relationship with the Army, and Bush's limited ability as an incumbent to make sweeping promises akin to Senator Kerry's pledge to add 40,000 new troops and relieve an overstretched force.

"The military as a whole supports the Iraq war," Mr. Feaver says, noting a historical tendency of troops to back the commander in chief in wartime. "But you can go across the military and find pockets where they are more ambivalent," he says, especially among the National Guard and Reserve. "The war has not gone as swimmingly as they thought, and that has caused disaffection.

Whether representing pockets of opposition to Bush or something bigger, soldiers and marines on Iraq's front lines can be impassioned in their criticism. …