NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — The Air Force is no longer America’s overwhelming choice as the most important branch of the armed forces due to the conflict in Iraq, a new Gallup poll shows.

Americans consider the Army or the Marine Corps just as important, while the Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard are far behind, the survey found. However, twice as many people named the Marine Corps as the “most prestigious branch” compared to the rest.

The poll represents a significant shift in opinion, which has traditionally favored the Air Force. The public has long considered the Air Force as the service “most vital to the nation’s defense” dating back to similar polls in the 1940s and 1950s.

But the tremendous amount of media attention zeroed in on ground forces in Iraq has changed public perceptions, Gallup found.

“Although Air Force and naval aircraft were a big part of the initial ‘shock and awe’ campaign that kicked off the Iraq war in March 2003, the visibility given the role of air (or sea) power has been low as the war has dragged on over the past year,” Frank Newport wrote in an article explaining the findings.

A randomly selected national sample of 1,002 adults interviewed between May 21 and 23 found that 25 percent named the Army as the most important. Twenty-three percent answered the Air Force and the Marine Corps, while only 9 percent suggested the Navy. The Coast Guard received 4 percent.

The Air Force had the top spot as recently as two years ago, when it was chosen by 38 percent, the Army 18 percent, the Navy 17 percent and the Marine Corps 16 percent.

The intense media attention is the main reason the Army and the Marine Corps surged in the survey, and the prison abuse involving U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib didn’t seem to affect opinions, according to the polling organization. Ironically, the attention might have helped boost the Army’s perceived importance among Americans.

“The Army has suffered negative publicity from its involvement in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, but if nothing else, the prison situation focused even more attention on the major role the Army is playing in Iraq,” Newport wrote in the May 27 report.

Soldiers and Marines weren’t surprised by their rise in popularity.

Air Force pilots attracted most of the attention during the first Gulf War in 1991, when TV news images of smart bombs slapped a premium on air power.

But as Spc. Robert Arnold, an artilleryman with the 1st Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment based in Babenhausen, Germany, put it: “It’s our time to shine.”

While air power had a huge role in the first part of the Iraq war, ground forces have taken the lead fighting an insurgency in Iraq and hunting for al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan. The bulk of the 130,000 troops in Iraq are soldiers and Marines, and they’ve also received the most casualties since the start of the conflict.

“Soldiers are the ones getting wounded, dying and bringing peace to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Army Capt. Gray Broughton said. “The Army puts a face on what’s going on over there.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Wingett said the same goes for the Marines.

“In a time of war like this, everyone is thinking about the Marines because we’re the ones out in the field, we’re the ones out in the battlefield getting into it, fighting,” said Wingett, a member of the Rota, Spain-based Marine Corps Security Force Company Europe.

While the Army and the Marine Corps are fighting together in Iraq, the Corps beats the Army as the most prestigious branch in the eyes of the public, the poll showed. Forty-four percent of those interviewed say Marines are “the most prestigious” and have “the most status in our society today.”

Marine Cpl. John Calloway said he expected the Corps to continue to be regarded highly for years to come.

“Personally, I just think the American population is in love with the Marine Corps,” Calloway said.

Air Force and Navy public affairs officers acknowledged that their branches have been overshadowed by the Army and Marine Corps because of the attention given to ground forces in Iraq.

“We saw the report here and we’ve moved on,” Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Cristin Lesperance said. “It’s not something we really have anything to say about.”

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Conrad Chun said the poll is only a snapshot in time, and sailors understand the “critical role” the Navy plays, adding that recruiting and retention in the past few years have never been higher.

“The truth of the matter is all services play vital roles in today’s joint battlefield,” Chun said. “And the Navy is more ‘joint’ than it has ever been.”

— Jon Anderson contributed to this story.

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