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Gary Younge
US public hardens behind war but radical fringe finds its voice

But while the survey shows overwhelming support for military action, it reveals a nation divided on how and when to fight and that is aware of its worsening image abroad.

The latest New York Times/ CBS poll shows that two thirds of Americans are in favour of using military force to remove Saddam Hussein against 30 per cent who are opposed.

A slim majority think inspectors should be given more time to search for evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. But that number has fallen steeply, by 10 percentage points over the past two weeks, while the number of those thinking the UN is doing a poor job in managing the crisis has leapt by the same amount.

The result is a nation more or less united on the need for war and divided on more or less everything else but where views are gradually hardening in favour of going it alone and doing it quickly.

Just over half (55 per cent) believe the United States should take military action without security council approval, up substantially on previous polls, while 41 per cent say it should not. Just over half (52 per cent) believe they should give weapons inspectors more time while 44 per cent believe they should act soon.

There has been a dramatic fall in the number of those who believe that President George Bush is respected by leaders of other countries from 67 per cent to 45 per cent, exactly the same percentage who believe he is no longer respected.

That split is being reflected in various ways throughout the country.

Small publishers say they are receiving an unexpected boost from the growth in sales of anti-war books and radical authors.

Noam Chomsky's 9-11, William Rivers Pitt's War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and Michael Moore's Stupid White Men have all become bestsellers.

"They're selling everywhere," said Kim Wylie, senior vice-president and director of national accounts at Publishers Group West, a national distributor. "It's not just independents, but at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, airports, libraries. The success is evenly distributed in every single channel. That's what's so damned impressive."

But rightwing authors are also performing well. The Savage Nation: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on our Borders, Language and Culture, by the rightwing radio host Michael Savage and The Right Man, by Bush's former speech writer David Frum, are both doing well.

In Hollywood stars are fronting rival advertisements both for and against the war. In one commercial Martin Sheen, the star of The West Wing says: "Don't invade Iraq. Inspections work. War won't."

In another spot Fred Thompson, a former Republican senator and now an actor in hit show Law and Order, declares: "Thank goodness we have a president with the courage to protect our country. What should we do with the inevitable prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of a murderous and aggressive enemy? Can we afford to appease Saddam?"

NBC has expressed concern that Sheen's high profile anti-war stance may damage The West Wing's ratings. The actors guild has now hit back warning the entertainment industry not to blacklist people who speak out against war with Iraq.

While such spats have been rare, the split in the UN security council has sparked some increasingly ridiculous protests.

Last month a Las Vegas radio station used an armoured vehicle to crush photographs of French president Jacques Chirac, bottles of wine and a baguette.

Yesterday Republican legislators deemed the nation's favourite side dish unpatriotic, ordering the cafeterias in the US House of Representatives to change French fries to "freedom fries".

"This is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France," said. Bob Ney, chairman of the house administration committee.

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