Just Ask

American viewers of network news, and Arabic viewers of al Jazeera TV, generally regard Operation Iraqi Freedom as a failure for various reasons:  Iraqis are too sectarian to form a nation; or they reject democracy as an ahistorical imposition; and or the average Iraqi lives a life of fear due to the deterioration of security since Saddam’s fall.

The International Republican Institute’s “Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion,” released July 19, 2006, provides a useful reality check to these assumptions.  The survey records that Iraqis overwhelmingly reject sectarianism and national division; and that they widely support the government they have elected.  Moreover, most Iraqis feel safe in their own neighborhoods. 

The poll is the latest addition to a series that the Institute has sponsored for the past three years.  The surveys were conducted June 14 through June 24 this year – a time of high sectarian violence, particularly in the Baghdad area.  The pollsters conducted 2849 interviews in Arabic and Kurdish, balanced for geography, ethnicity, sex and age.

The February 22nd bombing of the Al Askari shrine marked a turning point for the insurgency in Iraq.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, led at the time by Abu Musib al-Zarqawi, implemented a long-discussed plan to target Shi’ite civilian and religious targets.  The object was not to kill all Shi’ites – an obvious impossibility – but to generate a cycle of revenge killings by Shi’ite militias and police that would alienate and radicalize the Sunni populations in the most integrated parts of the country, particularly Baghdad.

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In effect, al-Zarqawi chose to feed the anti-democracy insurgency in Iraq by narrowing its base.  This paid immediate tactical dividends in both the western and pan-Arab press, which covered the daily slaughters. But it was strategically counterproductive to al-Qaeda.  The movement alienated ever-growing segments of the Iraqi population, and even of the insurgency, driving them toward the new government rather than away from it.

The current survey reflects these developments.

The Sunni sectarianism Zarqawi hoped to feed is alive and well.  But the opposition to sectarianism is stronger than ever.  Iraqis support a “unity” government, representing all religious and ethnic communities, by 94%-to-2%.  Asked to judge whether Iraqis should be segregated by religion, or by ethnicity, Iraqis oppose those prospects 78%-to-13%.  In mult-ethnic Baghdad, where most of the sectarian revenge killings occur, ethnic separation was opposed 76%-to-10%

Other questions touch on the question of national unity obliquely.  The division of oil revenues between the governates (states) and the central authority remains a core issue of Iraqi politics. It stands in proxy to the question of whether Iraq will remain a nation.  The major oil deposits are in the Kurdish north and the Shi’ite south.

The IRI polled Iraqis of all regions on their preferred treatment of oil revenues:  Whether the central authority in Baghdad should collect and control it; whether the states of origin should collect and control it; or whether a percentage allocation should partially vindicate both claims.  And in this survey, as in previous surveys, central control of Iraqi oil revenues was overwhelmingly preferred (67%), compared to state control (14%) and federated (state/federal) allocation (7%).  This preference for a national solution was strongly supported in the oil-rich provinces of the south (63%).  Only in the Kurdish governates did a state-centered solution win a plurality (38%) – and even there 34% of respondents preferred either a national or a federated solution.

What do Iraqis think of democracy? Outside Iraq’s borders, the Arab world considers Iraqi democracy a sham – a publicity ploy by the Americans to disguise a cruel occupation.  In a 2005 John Zogby-Shibley Telhami poll, Arab respondents characterized the war as bringing less democracy rather than more by 58%-to-9%. 

But Iraqis disagree.  Even in the Sunni provinces, the new Iraqi government musters 23% support.  And overall, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki commands approval numbers that any western head-of-state would envy.  Nationwide confidence in the al-Maliki government stands at 58% “approve” to 20% “disapprove.”  Kurds – roughly 20% of the population – support the new government 60%-11%.  Residents of the southern provinces – largely Shi’ia – approve 83%-to-3%.

Al-Maliki himself commands a 55% approval rating, compared to 20% who disapprove.

The IRI asked respondents to list their three “highest priorities” for al-Maliki’s government.  “Withdrawal of coalition forces” failed to make the list.  84% of Iraqis list “security” as either their top, second, or third concern; 71% list “infrastructure”; and 54% list economic development/job creation.  “Withdrawal of the coalition” was the top priority of 13% of Iraqis, and among the “top three” of 33%.

More general measures confirm acceptance of the post-Saddam regime.  A plurality of Iraqis now believe that Iraq is headed in the “right direction, and that things will improve over the next 6 months, and in the next year.  A strong majority (60%-to-15%) expect things to improve over the next 5 years.

Among Iraqis, security remains the principal concern.  But the IRI survey clarifies what this means.  Despite the daily lurid headlines, most Iraqis do not live in fear. 

Asked about overall security in the nation, 23% of Iraqis consider it to be “good” or “fair”, compared to 75% who rate it “poor.” But asked about security in their own neighborhoods, the numbers change drastically.  Sixty percent of Iraqis consider security “good” or “fair” where they live, compared to 38% who consider it poor. 

The IRI’s regional breakdowns clarify this further.  Residents of Baghdad feel insecure, 60%-to-38% ; but 82% of residents of the Kurdish provinces feel secure in their neighborhoods.  Residents of the Sunni provinces feel insecure, 73%-to-27%.  But only 9% of the residents of the Mid-Euphrates and Southern governates rate their security “poor.”

Improved security is central to the prospects of the Iraqi democracy.  But the worst violence is sectional, concentrated heavily in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle; and even within those areas, it is not ubiquitous. Many Iraqis live in danger – but the average Iraqi does not.  And the places where danger is least are precisely those where it was greatest under Saddam – the Kurdish north and Shi’ite south, where most of the population lives.

The IRI survey shows a transformation-in-progress, by a people who share a common national identity and a widespread commitment to multi-party democracy.  It is a shame that so little of our reporting on Iraq reflects what Iraqis say – when asked!

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