Most Americans guess wrong when asked to estimate how many troops have died in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a sign that many are giving scant attention to the nation’s most dangerous military operation since the Vietnam War.

A new survey of 1,001 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that fewer than half said they “very closely” follow news coverage of the military occupation. Less than a third named “the war on terror” or “peace in the Mideast” as the most important issue facing America. Most others preferred domestic concerns like the economy, Social Security, education or health care.

So far this year, soldiers and Marines have died at a rate of about three per day in the conflict. More than 1,450 military personnel and several dozen civilian employees of the Defense Department have died since Operation Iraqi Freedom began nearly two years ago.

Forty percent of people in the poll gave the correct answer when asked, to the nearest 500, how many have died in the six-week war and the bloody military occupation that followed. Thirty-two percent guessed that 1,000 or fewer have died, 21 percent said 2,000 or more have died and 7 percent could not make a guess.

People who oppose the war tend to overestimate the number of fatalities in Iraq while those who support it are more likely to underestimate the death toll.

Participants in the poll were asked, “How often would you say you think about America’s military occupation of Iraq?” About 5 percent said they think about it “almost every hour,” 35 percent said “several times a day,” 35 percent said “about once a day,” 15 percent said “several times a week” and 10 percent said “about once a week” or “less than once a week.”

The survey also asked, “How carefully would you say you follow news media coverage of America’s military occupation of Iraq?” Forty-two percent said “very closely,” 47 percent said “somewhat closely” and 11 percent said “not closely.”

People who said they are following war news closely are much more likely to know how many Americans have died in Iraq than people who don’t read or watch war accounts in newspapers and on television. The proportion who correctly identified that “about 1,500” have died in Iraq was 51 percent among people who follow war news “very closely,” 34 percent among those who follow news accounts “somewhat closely” and 25 percent who are “not closely” following news from Iraq.

The decision to commit American troops to Iraq has never been especially popular, according to a series of six previous surveys taken during the past two years.

In the latest poll, people were asked, “Despite everything that has happened, do you think the United States has done a good thing or a bad thing by sending our military to occupy Iraq?” Forty-seven percent said the United States has done “a good thing,” 44 percent said it’s “a bad thing” and 9 percent were undecided.

The recent elections, widely heralded by President Bush and other political leaders as a historic milestone for Iraq, produced only a temporary boost in America’s public support for the U.S.-led occupation. Sixty percent of people interviewed during the election and the two days after it said the military occupation was “a good thing.” But the support level dropped to about 49 percent in the next two days, then settled to the mid 40s thereafter.

The survey was conducted by telephone from Jan. 30 through Feb. 10 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. It has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points. It was funded through a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.)