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Credibility as casualty

ALMOST 20 years ago I was driving south from Baghdad when I saw a yellow-and-white taxi coming up the Basra road with a flag-draped coffin on the roof. Then I saw another, and another. At the time Iraq was engaged in a long and bitter war with Iran, and I learned that what I was seeing was the war dead coming home.

In those days taxis would be summoned to military morgues and given a coffin along with an address and some money to deliver it. When a coffin-laden taxi would turn into a residential street, people would hold a collective breath wondering at which house the taxi would stop. Often families would be given no other notice. They would be asked to sign a receipt, and the taxi would drive away.

It was the custom in Iraq to fly a black flag outside the house of a fallen soldier, but by the time I got there the government had discouraged the practice because Saddam Hussein wanted to underplay the casualties so as not to harm morale for his war.

In America the flagged-draped coffins of our honored dead are escorted home in military planes. Relatives are routinely notified promptly in person by Pentagon representatives, and the coffins themselves are treated with impeccable and ceremonial respect.

Yet I was interested to read that only recently, under pressure from a Freedom of Information Act suit, would the Pentagon finally agree to make fully available photographs of arriving American coffins from Iraq.

President Bush had said that the ban was to protect the privacy of the families, but I suspect that the administration felt that photographs of coffins coming home might sap support for the president's war.

So far the Bush administration has been remarkably successful in downplaying the cost of its Iraqi adventure. Earlier on, the then deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, was unable to tell Congress what the number of American dead was. The war played well when it came time to get reelected, and dissent could be branded as unpatriotic.

The administration had predicted an easy victory. Just lop off the head of Saddam's regime and, bingo, a pro-American, pro-Israeli democracy would emerge, ready to welcome US military bases, guarantee our oil, and be a light unto other nations, bringing liberty and democracy to the region, they said. Yet none of this has come to pass. The draft constitution highlights the bitter differences in Iraq, not unity, which, in the long run, no document can paper over.

For a time it seemed not to matter to the American public that the stated reasons for going to war, the weapons of mass destruction and the links with Al Qaeda, turned out not to be true. After all, there was no draft, the casualties were not reaching Vietnam levels, and the families of soldiers could not bear to think that their sons and daughters were fighting and dying in a dubious cause, or so the administration calculated.

There were critics, of course, but the general public seemed to accept all the misleading and disingenuous statements such as ''mission accomplished" or that the Iraqi insurrection is in its ''last throes" or that old holdover from the Vietnam War: We are fighting them there so we won't have to fight them here at home. Now Bush's reason for more dead is to honor those who have already died.

But the tide is turning. Most Americans disapprove of how Bush is handling the war, and most now no longer trust his honesty, according to polls, which used to be his trump card. ''Today," according to pollster John Zogby, ''the linkage between Iraq and the war on terrorism that has worked for Bush in the past is taking its toll. Barely a majority give the president positive marks for handling the war on terrorism -- down from 66 percent when he was reelected in 2004."

Saddam's war against Iran lasted almost a dozen years. But then he didn't have to put up with mothers of dead soldiers effectively questioning a failing enterprise.

And so the president interrupts his vacation to make speeches in support of his war -- speeches in which he now makes references to the number of American dead, which The New York Times called ''rare." Thanks in part to Cindy Sheehan, it is getting harder to sweep the cost of this war under the national rug. In this, her mission has been partially accomplished.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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