Monday, December 12, 2005

What are Iraqis thinking now? (BBC/ABC survey)

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein & his regime in 2003, Iraqis have been polled fairly often--especially for a country undergoing so much political violence. On the eve of Iraq's parliamentary elections, the latest survey of Iraqi public opinion reported on by the BBC (which was hostile to the 2003 Iraq war and has remained so) includes some interesting and surprising results.
The poll by Oxford Research International was commissioned by the BBC, ABC News and other international media organisations, and released ahead of this week's parliamentary elections in Iraq. [....] In all, 1,711 Iraqis were interviewed throughout the country in October and November 2005.
(The BBC piece on these poll results, with the attention-getting title "Survey finds optimism in Iraq", also includes a link to the full survey results, along with the wordings of the questions in English translation.)

It's always hard to know what to make of opinion polls, and of course the results from this poll should be approached with due caution and skepticism. But a number of them are intriguing and thought-provoking, and in some cases unexpected, so they may be worth some reflection. Here are some highlights from the BBC's summary:
An opinion poll suggests Iraqis are generally optimistic about their lives, in spite of the violence that has plagued Iraq since the US-led invasion.
But the survey, carried out for the BBC and other media, found security fears still dominate most Iraqis' thoughts. [....]
A majority of the 1,700 people questioned wanted a united Iraq with a strong central government. [....]
Although most Iraqis were optimistic about the future, the poll found significant regional variations in responses.
In central Iraq respondents were far less optimistic about the situation in one year's time than those in Baghdad, the south and north. [Not surprising. --JW]
The BBC News website's World Affairs correspondent, Paul Reynolds, says the survey shows a degree of optimism at variance with the usual depiction of the country as one in total chaos.
The BBC report even goes so far as to flirt with the unthinkable:
The findings are more in line with the kind of arguments currently being deployed by US President George W Bush, he says.
Be that as it may, some patterns in the responses are complex. The regional variations (which presumably are linked to ethnic variations) are not surprising, and I found it interesting that respondents were more positive in describing their own situations than in describing the overall condition of Iraq. But the most striking feature of the survey results is that solid majorities of the respondents expect things to get substantially better within the next year. After all the errors, insecurity, suffering, and dashed hopes of the past two-and-a-half years, this degree of optimism is remarkable.
Interviewers found that 71% of those questioned said things were currently very or quite good in their personal lives, while 29% found their lives very or quite bad.
When asked whether their lives would improve in the coming year, 64% said things would be better and 12% said they expected things to be worse.
However, Iraqis appear to have a more negative view of the overall situation in their country, with 53% answering that the situation is bad, and 44% saying it is good.
But they were more hopeful for the future - 69% expect Iraq to improve, while 11% say it will worsen.
As one might expect, the most important concerns expressed by respondents had to do with lack of security. (Though in this respect I did notice one set of results I would not have expected. When respondents were asked to compare "the security situation" now with the situation "before the war in Spring 2003," 44% said the security situation was either "much better" or "somewhat better" than before the war, while only 38% said it had gotten worse.) When respondents were asked to name their highest priorities for Iraq for the next 12 months, 57% identified "regaining public security in the country" as their first priority. No other option came close. It is interesting to note that less than 10% identified "getting U.S. and other occupation forces out of Iraq" as their first priority.

=> In partial tension with the tone of many of these results, one result from the survey was sobering, saddening, and potentially worrisome.

Before the 2003 Iraq war, the overwhelming bulk of the available evidence indicated that most Iraqis favored it (with understandable trepidations and ambivalence), and few serious observers have denied that most Iraqis initially welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein & his regime. For the last two-and-a-half years, all systematic soundings of Iraqi public opinion that I am aware of have consistently shown that, despite everything that has gone wrong since the overthrow of the Iraqi Ba'ath regime and despite the ongoing violence of the insurgency and counter-insurgency, clear majorities of Iraqis have continued to say that, on balance, the war was justified, "right," and ultimately worth it.

These results have been reassuring to those of us who agreed with Iraqis on these points. (On these matters, of course, Iraqis were in sharp disagreement with public opinion among non-Iraqi Arabs and most of the larger Muslim world, western Europeans, and so on. But their opinions on these questions carry a good deal less moral weight, at least for me.) It is clear from some interviews included with the BBC report (and quoted by Norman Geras in Normblog) that a number of Iraqis still feel this way.
[I]f you go to the panel 'What ordinary Iraqis say about how life has changed' and click through the link there ('In pictures'), you'll find Iraqis saying things like this:
The US invasion was a really good thing and the presence of the US troops is really important now
The US troops were really welcomed at first because they helped us to get rid of Saddam, but people have started complaining about their behaviour, they cause much trouble to Iraqis these days especially in the streets and I hope that we don't need them in one year.
I don't want US troops in Iraq forever but we need them for the meantime and I think we need one or two years before we can depend on ourselves.
We always wished that someone would save us from Saddam's regime and the US troops did that. I really don't want them to leave for the time being.
But in this survey, for the first time, a slight majority (50.3%) said it was "wrong that US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq in Spring 2003"--given the probable margin of error, responses were essentially evenly divided on this question. (This result may help to reassure those who favored leaving Iraq under the control of Saddam Hussein & his regime, and who favor abandoning Iraq now, though I don't believe it should.) It would be wrong to jump to conclusions based on one survey result, but the long-term trend here could suggest that Iraqis feel an increasing degree of disillusionment and exasperation based on their experience of the post-Saddam occupation & reconstruction of Iraq (or, more precisely, the lack of reconstruction). The danger is that the spectacular incompetence and disastrous irresponsibility with which the Bush administration has managed the occupation, combined with the savage assault of the so-called "insurgents" on Iraqi civilians and on the country's reconstruction, might finally be bringing many Iraqis to the breaking point. (In some ways, it's striking that this hasn't happened already.)

As I said, such an interpretation would appear to run counter to the main implications of the overall survey results ... but it's hard to be sure about what is going on beneath the surface of these statistics, and it's a safe guess that Iraqis' feelings about all these issues are deeply ambivalent.

=> Whether or not Iraqis can see positive developments in the next half-year or so may turn out to be crucial. And in this respect, the outcomes of Thursday's elections could prove to be tremendously important. So this snapshot of Iraqi public opinion on the eve of the elections, whatever one wants to make of it, is almost certainly less significant than whether or not those elections move Iraqis closer to achieving some kind of workable political solution.

--Jeff Weintraub

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