Politics & Policy

What Iraqis Want

Winning Sunnis, losing Shiites.

On September 27, 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 brought.

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, antiterrorist 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 Shiites, and a less hostile attitude among Sunnis.

“Yankee go home — slowly”

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

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 percent 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 percent of Kurds, 98 percent of Shiites, and 77 percent of Sunnis. Terror attacks on Iraqi civilians are disapproved by 100 percent of those surveyed.

The “power groups” most Iraqis endorse are their own security forces. Iraqi police enjoy 71 percent approval; the army, 64 percent. 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 percent in PIPA’s January poll to 51 percent now.

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

Other factors qualify Iraqi resentment toward America. Support for U.S. non-military involvement remains strong — 68 percent endorse U.S. 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 percent of those surveyed. Only 37 percent 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 percent of Iraqis answer in the affirmative.

‐72 percent of respondents expect Iraq to be a single state in five years, including majorities of all major Iraqi communities.

‐77 percent support a strong government that would disband the militias.

‐Support for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki hovers near two-thirds: 85 percent of Shiites, 58 percent of Kurds, and 15 percent of Sunnis.

‐96 percent 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 percent and 94 percent respectively. Only 45 percent of Iraqi Shiites 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 percent of whom regarded it favorably. But 63 percent of Kurds and 68 percent of Shiites consider Syria’s influence “mostly negative.”

Sunnis up, Shiites 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 Shiites hold our efforts. Since February 2006, Sunni terrorist tactics have targeted Shiite civilians. These massacres have, in turn, triggered revenge killings by Shiite militias. The latter are connected to major Shiite political factions, all of which sponsor their own press.

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

‐The percentage of Sunnis wanting a U.S. withdrawal within six months — the survey’s shortest option — declined from 83 percent in the January PIPA poll to 57 percent now.

‐Among Sunnis in the Baghdad governate (the center of death-squad activity), only 24 percent want America to withdraw quickly.

‐Concurrently, Shiite support for a six-month withdrawal increased from 22 percent to 36 percent.

‐Shiite support for U.S. mediation “between ethnic groups” declined from 76 percent to 43 percent, but rose among Sunnis from 20 percent to 41 percent.

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 Shiites in order to encourage cooperation 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.  

 – Richard Nadler is the president of Americas Majority, a 501(c)(4) policy group, and co-editor of the “Daily Dispatch,” a mil-blog covering the Iraq war.

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