Politics & Policy

Geography of the War

A poll of Iraqis on their views of the war.

Supporters of Operation Iraqi Freedom will be buoyed by a new poll of Iraqis showing high levels of support for the Baghdad security plan and the elected government implementing it. War opponents will cite the survey’s report of Iraqi dissatisfaction with foreign occupation. Serious analysts of all persuasions should give this poll, conducted by Opinion Research Business (ORB), a close look. The ORB pollsters have doubled the sample size of the best previous polls, and have compiled statistically significant samples in all 18 of Iraq’s “governates,” or states. The result is something that has been sadly lacking in war reportage: a geography of the conflict.

The New Regime

Iraqis were asked, “Taking everything into account, do you feel that things are better for you now under the present political system, or do you think things were better for you before under the previous regime of Saddam Hussein?”

Fifty-three percent of respondents preferred the current regime; 29 percent that of Saddam, and 18 percent neither. Among Kurds, support for the new order ran 84 percent to 12percent; among Shiites, 72 percent to 7 percent. Sunnis surveyed preferred Saddam’s rule, 56 percent to 32 percent.

Popular opposition to the elected government is concentrated not in Baghdad, where most of the insurgent attacks occur, but in western Iraq (Nineveh and Anbar), in oil-rich Kirkuk, and in the Sunni suburbs north of Baghdad (Salahadin and Diyala). Baghdadis favor the democracy 61percent to 19 percent.

Geographically, 13 governates representing 74 percent of the population support the al Maliki regime; five provinces, representing 26 percent of the population, prefer Baathist rule. The supporters of the new order include the Kurdish regions of the north, the Shiite provinces of the south and mid-Euphrates regions, and Baghdad itself. The ratios of support-to-opposition in these governates average better than 10-to-1.

Death and Exile

The ORB survey paints a grim portrait of the impact of violence on Iraqis. Fifty percent of Iraqis have experienced crime against a family member or colleague in the form of either murder or kidnapping. But the level of violence varies sharply by governate. In Baghdad, home to organized crime and spectacular terror, 79 percent have been affected by such incidents. In Dohuk and Irbil in the Kurdish north, only one percent reported murders or kidnappings among friends and family. In southern provinces like Basra and Muthana, the victimization rates were 37 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

A similar regional pattern dominates displacements. Asked “Do you have any members of your family that have left Iraq over the last four years as a result of the security situation?” 15 percent answer in the affirmative. That rises to 25 percent among respondents with post-secondary education. Yet, from a high of 35 percent in Baghdad governate, displacements range radically downward as one heads both north and south. Respondents in Basra and Muthana reported family members displaced at 2 percent and 1 percent respectively.

The Occupation

The current survey, like previous surveys, reveals Iraqi hostility toward the occupying coalition, identified (in this British-conducted survey) as the Multi-National Force (MNF). Asked whether the security situation “will get better or worse” in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal of Coalition forces, 53 percent of respondents believe security would improve, 26 percent that it would deteriorate.

However, the MNF fares consistently better than other armed groups in surveys of Iraqi opinion. In the PIPA poll of September 2006, the native militias had only 21 percent support; 77 percent of respondents hoped for an Iraqi government that would disband them. Al Qaeda fared far worse: It was viewed unfavorably by 94 percent of Iraqis. The simple fact is that the “man in the Iraqi street” is sick of armed groups, indigenous or foreign. Asked to vote on their presence, he says “No!”

A closer look at Iraqi attitudes to the MNF paints a more textured tale. Sunnis, long the adamant opponents of the occupation, are now evenly split (42 percent to 42 percent) on the security impact of MNF withdrawal. Kurds continue to regard the coalition as preservers of the peace (63 percent to 15 percent). It is the Shiites who expect security to improve when we depart (62 percent to 14 percent).

The Surge

Yet Shiites are extremely supportive of the surge. Asked whether Noori al Maliki’s “new security plan” will “disarm all Militias,” Shiites respondent believe it will, 61 percent to 7 percent. Kurds agree, although by a lesser margin (56 percent to 9 percent). It is the Sunnis who fear it will not disarm “all” militias, 41 percent to 26 percent. It is obvious that the groups interpret “all” differently.

Baghdadis believe, 49 percent to 9 percent, that the surge will succeed. And they, unlike John Murtha, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi, live where it is being implemented.

The heavily Sunni province of Salahadin, northeast of Baghdad, provides a microcosm of the coalition’s growing role as a peace broker among the factions. Of the Salahadin residents surveyed, 96 percent expressed a preference for the reign of Saddam, and 77 percent expressed skepticism that the security plan would work. But 69 percent feared that the security situation would worsen were the MNF to depart. This hotbed of Sunni radicalism now sees the coalition as the primary force protecting it from Shiite retribution.

To summarize: The majority populations of Iraq (Shia and Kurd) believe that the surge will work. The minority population (Arab Sunni) fears that it may not.

George W. Bush

An interesting window on Iraqi attitudes toward the United States is revealed in the responses to the following question: “President George Bush has announced that he will be sending 20,000 troops to Iraq in the coming months. Why is he doing this?”

No single answer to this open-ended query polled a majority. But a substantial plurality of respondents–33 percent overall–assumed a benign motive: “To bring security and stability back to Iraq” was the answer of 26 percent of Shiites, 40 percent of Sunnis, and 61 percent of Kurds.

The next most common response attributed the U.S. buildup to a plan to attack Iran or Syria–an explanation favored by 20 percent of Shiites, 27 percent of Sunnis, and 14 percent of Kurds.

Responses implying evil or conspiratorial intent toward Iraq itself–to overthrow the elected government or to establish U.S. control–polled substantially lower. As confidence in President Bush has sagged in America, it has risen in Iraq, to the point that the poll numbers have virtually crossed.

Nationalism

Whether the insurgency in Iraq is a civil war, or whether administration officials will so describe it, remains a fixed obsession of American journalists. The ORB pollsters posed this question to Iraqis. Twenty-seven percent of respondents thought it is and 61 percent that it is not, with 14 percent undecided.

As in previous polls, Iraqi nationalism runs strong. Most Iraqis reject any form of partition. Asked to choose between “a single country run by a central government” or a “federal system with independent regional governments,” Iraqis prefer the former, 64 percent to 21 percent.

The ORB poll highlights the legitimacy of the al Maliki regime; the incomplete nature of the war effort; and a growing acceptance of the American and MNF role in establishing security. The Iraqi people clearly hope that the current “surge” will succeed in disarming the terrorists, militias, and criminal gangs that have bled them the past three years.

Can we say as much for the U.S. Congress?

— Richard Nadler is the president of Americas Majority Foundation.

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