By Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than half of Americans support President Barack Obama's apology for U.S. troops burning copies of the Koran, an incident that triggered a spate of bloody protests and attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday, 56 percent of those surveyed backed Obama, who has been criticized by U.S. Republican presidential candidates for apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Twenty-three percent disagreed.
While the spasm of violence that erupted following the incident on a NATO base in Afghanistan does not appear to have significantly altered Americans' perspective on the war, 66 percent of those polled also said Washington should bring its troops home immediately.
Obama's formal apology and the debate that decision created have underscored the delicate course the president must tread in his campaign for re-election in November.
Afghanistan and other foreign policy issues are sure to take a backseat to the economy in the campaign but Obama is loath to give Republicans more ammunition in the crucial months before the elections.
The poll, conducted from March 2 to March 5, showed that far more Democrats supported Obama's apology, with 76 percent of them saying Obama made the right decision.
Only 37 percent of Republicans backed the apology, and almost half said Obama was not right to do so. Some 53 percent of independents supported the apology.
In keeping with calls from Capitol Hill, Democrats surveyed professed even less support than Republicans for a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Some 76 percent of Democrats said U.S. troops should be withdrawn immediately, compared with 53 percent of Republicans. Seventy percent of independents favored an immediate withdrawal.
The poll included 1,143 Americans interviewed online. The poll had a credibility interval of 3.4 percentage points.
Obama cannot allow the outcry over the Koran incident and other NATO missteps to undermine tentative security gains, weakening his ability to point to a series of security successes such as the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, or worsen tensions with the mercurial Karzai government.
His decision received extra scrutiny when, several days later, two U.S. officers were shot dead by an Afghan inside the Afghan Interior Ministry, one of a spate of so-called 'insider' attacks on NATO forces since the Koran burnings took place.
The Koran burnings could be behind the death of up to six American soldiers.
On Monday, a suicide bomber killed at least two civilians at the gates of the base where the Korans were burned. The Taliban said the attack was an act of 'revenge.
Underlying the debate over Obama's apology are even larger questions about the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, where over 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled the militant group remains a potent enemy.
Obama plans to pull all of the 33,000 troops he deployed in 2009-10, credited with turning around the long-neglected campaign in Afghanistan, by this fall, leaving around 68,000 U.S. troops. Most foreign combat troops are due to withdraw by the end of 2014.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh)