What Iraqis Want

On September 27th, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) released a poll of Iraqi opinion – a sequel to its poll of January, 2006.  The PIPA study contains findings to hearten both partisans and opponents of the administration’s Iraq policy.  Iraqis express a strong, but qualified, rejection of the presence of U.S. troops, and a strong, but qualified, acceptance of the new order that those troops have wrought.

If one assumes that the success of U.S. policy requires Iraqi acceptance of foreign occupiers, then this poll demonstrates abject failure.  If one assumes the goal of U.S. policy is the establishment of an independent, anti-terrorist democracy in the heart of the Middle East, then the poll offers clear indications of success. But beside the findings touted by partisans, the PIPA survey records a shift of opinion on the ground:  a more hostile attitude toward the U.S. among Shi’ites, and a less hostile attitude among Sunnis.

“Yankee go home – slowly”

Only 29% of Iraqis want American troops to remain in their country longer than a year.  U.S. troops are widely considered a source of the violence that wracks the country.  But other armed groups fare worse. 

According to the PIPA authors, “Only 20 percent overall favored the idea of replacing US-led forces with an international peacekeeping force mostly from Islamic countries.”  A mere 21% of Iraqis believe that  militias should continue to exist.  Seventy-seven percent support a “strong government that would get rid of the militias.” 

This latter finding is particularly significant. Iraqis blame the militias – not the Americans, not the foreign fighters – for the bulk of the sectarian violence. The PIPA report states,

“A majority of all groups believe that the intent of violence against ethnic groups is to drive them from their neighborhoods, so that a militia can solidify its power.”

Al Qaeda is the force most hated.  Ninety-four percent of Iraqis view it unfavorably, including 100% of Kurds, 98% of Shi’ites, and 77% of Sunnis.  Terror attacks on Iraqi civilians are disapproved by 100% of those surveyed.

The “power groups” most Iraqis endorse are their own security forces.  Iraqi police enjoy 71% approval; the army, 64%.  Belief in the competence of these forces is rising in tandem with their numbers and training.  The proportion of Iraqis who consider their army and police “strong enough to deal with security challenges on their own” has risen from 39% in PIPA’s January poll to 51% now.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular activity of American troops is their training of Iraqi security forces:  63% of those surveyed approve.

Other factors qualify Iraqi resentment toward America.  Support for U.S. non-military involvement remains strong – 68% endorse US efforts “to address local needs, such as building schools and health clinics.”  And while most Iraqis want U.S. troops out, most do not want us out just now.  Iraqis who advocate that we “gradually withdraw US-led forces according to a one-year timeline” or longer comprise 63% of those surveyed.  Only 37% opted for a timeline of a half-year – the shortest option given.

“Thank you America”

While Iraqis reject occupation by U.S. (or other) troops, they broadly embrace the political consequences of Operation Iraqi Freedom.   

According to the PIPA authors,

“Reports of conflict in Iraq may give the impression that the central government is so weak and unpopular that Iraq is on the verge of fragmenting into a very loose confederation if not complete partition, and that major sectors of the population are aligning themselves with militias out of a widespread lack of confidence in the central government.  However, the findings of the poll suggest quite a different and more positive view.”

  • Asked, “Thinking about any hardships you might have suffered since the US-Britain invasion, do you personally think that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth it or not?”, 61% of Iraqis answer in the affirmative.
  • 72% of respondents expect Iraq to be a single state in 5 years, including majorities of all major Iraqi communities.
  • 77% support a strong government that would disband the militias.
  • Support for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki hovers near two-thirds:  85% of Shi’ites, 58% of Kurds, and 15% of Sunnis.
  • 96% disapprove of attacks on Iraqi government security forces.

Iranian domination, an obsession of many analysts, has little foundation in Iraqi attitudes. (Americans tend to forget that the two nations fought a bloody war during the 1980s.)   Kurds and Sunnis regarded Iran’s influence as “mostly negative” by 71% and 94% respectively.  Only 45% of Iraqi Shi’ites regarded Iran’s influence as “mostly positive.”

The PIPA authors conclude,

“Some observers fear that with the ascension of Shias to a dominant role in Iraq, there is potential for the formation of an alliance between Iraq and Shia-dominated Iran.  This poll does not suggest any such proclivities in Iraqi public opinion.” 

The Assad regime fared better among Iraqi Sunnis, 41% of whom regarded it favorably.  But 63% of Kurds and 68% of Shi’ites consider Syria’s influence “mostly negative.”

Sunnis up, Shi’ites down

The most striking change this poll records relates not to the overall popularity of American troops (which has always been low), nor to the popularity of democratic regime change (which has always been high), but to the relative regard in which Sunnis and Shi’ites hold our efforts.  Since February, 2006, Sunni terrorist tactics have targeted Shi’ite civilians. These massacres have, in turn, triggered revenge killings by Shi’ite militias.  The latter are connected to major Shi’ite political factions, all of which sponsor their own press.

The American-led coalition has targeted al Qaeda operatives and Ba’athist recidivists since the conclusion of the invasion.  But recent interventions against Shi’ite death squads have strained relations with the political groups that sponsor or shelter them.  The result has been a deterioration of Shi’ite support for U.S. troops, and a concurrent softening of Sunni opposition: 

  • The percentage of Sunnis wanting a U.S. withdrawal within 6 months – the survey’s shortest option – declined from 83% in the January PIPA poll to 57% now.
  • Among Sunnis in the Baghdad governate (the center of death-squad activity), only 24% want America to withdraw quickly.
  • Concurently, Shi’ite support for a 6-month withdrawal increased from 22% to 36%.
  • Shi’ite support for U.S. mediation “between ethnic groups” declined from 76% to 43%, but rose among Sunnis from 20% to 41%.

American policymakers (and troops) intervened this year to shelter ordinary Sunnis from the consequences of the terror emanating from their communities.  The coalition’s political objective was to maintain the approximate balance of voting power among Iraq’s major groups.  The underlying theory is that Iraq’s diverse interests may shield the budding democracy against the dictatorship of any faction. 

This olive branch to Sunni tribal leaders is unlikely to be extended indefinitely.  The PIPA survey records both its positive and negative consequences. This year, the coalition has compromised its standing among Shi’ites in order to encourage co-operation among Sunnis.  If the violence continues in Baghdad, that will end.

To summarize:  Americans are not popular in Iraq.  But we are achieving our mission.  Iraqis support the toppling of Saddam. They endorse a unified Iraq, and reject the influence of terrorists and foreign neighbors.  The PIPA poll confirms what previous surveys documented:  that Iraqis don’t want foreign troops occupying their soil; but that they approve their democratically elected government, and the indigenous security forces that secure it.   

This piece reprinted by permission of National Review Online – nationalreview.com

One Response to “What Iraqis Want”

  1. gregdn Says:

    You left out the finding that some 60% of Iraqis of all stripes think it’s OK to kill Americans.