Monday, August 30, 2010

Iraqi Poll: Majority do not want Americans to leave right now

Today marks the official end of the US combat mission in Iraq. Barack Obama will be giving a nationally televised address about it tonight; and Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki celebrated the occasion with a speech declaring that U.S.-Iraqi relations "have entered a new stage between two equal, sovereign countries."

Obviously, that formulation about "the end of the US combat mission" is misleading, to say the least, except in the most deceptively narrow ultra-technical sense. There are still almost 50,000 US troops in Iraq, down from over 130,000 in 2008 but still a substantial number. Officially they are transitioning from active combat operations to providing support and training for Iraqi forces, who are supposed to bear the main responsibility for maintaining order and security. But as long as violent conflict continues (which it does, albeit at much lower levels than in 2006-2007), at least some of those troops will be involved in combat (in "partnership" with Iraqi soldiers, as the US military puts it).

Nevertheless, this does constitute another milestone in the process of winding down the American war in Iraq. How do Iraqis feel about it? According to various pieces of information, including a recent survey of Iraqi public opinion, most Iraqis are nervous about the prospect.

Joel Wing, whose "Musings on Iraq" website is one of the best places to go for ongoing news and analysis about Iraq, has a nice piece about this (see below). Some highlights:
The U.S. is moving ahead with its withdrawal plans from Iraq. On August 24, 2010 the commander of U.S. forces in the country, General Ray Odierno, said that American troop levels had dropped to 49,700. A private Iraqi firm, Asharq Research Center, conducted a poll of 1,150 people, aged 18 and above in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces from August 15-23 about what they thought about it. The majority said that it was the wrong time for the Americans to leave.

The Asharq Research Center asked four questions of Iraqis. The first was whether it was the right time for the U.S. to withdraw. 59.8% said it was not appropriate at this time, while 39.5% said it was. Next they asked whether people were for or against President Obama’s decision to end combat missions within Iraq. Respondents were more evenly divided with 53.1% disagreeing, and 46.2% agreeing. The third question was about what affect the U.S. withdrawal would have on Iraq. 51% said it would be bad for the country, with 25.8% saying it would be positive. The last topic was whether President Obama was concerned about Iraq. Respondents had mixed views with 41.9% saying that he didn’t care about Iraq, 39.8% said he did, while 15.5% didn’t know. [....]
These results differ to some degree from polling results a few years ago, which suggested that most Iraqi respondents were more eager to press for the exit of US troops. In some ways, though, these shifting patterns are unsurprising. Ever since the 2003 invasion, most Iraqis seem to have been deeply, even ferociously, ambivalent about the US presence in Iraq--even leaving aside the fact that different groups of Iraqis have had sharply different attitudes about it at different times. The overall weight of evidence suggests that at first most Iraqis, on balance and with varying degrees of reluctance, welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime, even at the cost of a foreign invasion. Within a fairly short time, however, the Americans had worn out their welcome and made a mess of things--and, I would say, acquired some moral responsibilities to the Iraqi people. Not long ago, many Iraqis were probably convinced that the Americans never intended to leave, so their main concern was to avoid an open-ended occupation. Now they realize that, in fact, Americans very much want to get out of Iraq, so that concern is less pressing. Instead, they worry about the dangers of an overly hasty US withdrawal.
The August poll shows that Iraqis are quite apprehensive about the U.S. leaving Iraq.

With no new government five months after parliamentary elections, and insurgents picking up with their high profile operations such as on August 25 when simultaneous attacks were carried out in 13 different cities including Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Kut, and Karbala, it’s no wonder why some Iraqis are asking whether this is the right time for the Americans to withdraw. Despite the problems and resentment that the invasion caused, it appears that a slight majority of those polled believe that the U.S. could help with at least security. That’s a view shared by the Iraqi military as the chief of staff of the armed forces recently said that the Americans should stay until 2020 to help with national defense. [....]

The problem is that the Obama administration is working on a Washington agenda that is caught up with the recession, the war in Afghanistan, keeping Obama’s campaign promises about Iraq, and the November elections. That means while U.S. troops will continue to work with their Iraqi counterparts on training, advising, counterterrorism, development, and governance, and a small contingent will probably remain past the 2011 deadline for them to be out, the period of massive U.S. involvement in every facet of Iraqi society is coming to an end, and nothing is likely to change that.
And this is almost certainly for the best, given the realistically available alternatives.

In retrospect, it's clear that if the US had decided to abandon Iraq back in 2007, at the height of civil war and inter-sectarian bloodbath in Arab Iraq--a possibility that seemed quite plausible around the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007--the results would have been catastrophic. Instead, the US government reaffirmed and beefed up the US commitment, while authorizing a switch to the more activist counter-insurgency strategy championed and carried out by Petraeus and Odierno, who also caught some lucky breaks on the ground and took advantage of them effectively. That was a tremendous gamble, and one which might have failed disastrously; but in fact it managed to turn the situation around, prevent Iraq from going totally off a cliff, and create the possibility (no more than that) for Iraqi political forces to pull together some kind of decent and workable long-term settlement.

Iraq is still a mess in many ways, and faces enormous challenges and dangers. But as I noted earlier this year, whatever one thinks about the 2003 Iraq war, honesty should compel us to recognize that on the fundamental question as it was posed around the beginning of 2007--whether or not the right course was for the US to admit failure and abandon Iraq--Generals Petraeus and Odierno, John McCain, and even (let's give credit where it's due) George W. Bush turned out to be right, whereas Barack Obama, most Democrats, much of the top military brass, and a great many Republicans were wrong. Obama, to his credit, recognized that by the time he became President.

Nevertheless, in the long run that kind of US military commitment couldn't and shouldn't be maintained indefinitely. That was never in the cards. The pace and details of US military disengagement may be flexible in the coming years. But the overall process of disengagement won't be reversed. As Joel Wing concludes:
Iraqis are going to have to handle their own affairs with all the difficulties that entails whether they are ready or not.
Good luck to them, and let's stay tuned.

As nervous as the Iraqis, but hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Joel Wing - Musings on Iraq
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Iraqi Poll: Majority Do Not Want Americans To Leave Right Now

The U.S. is moving ahead with its withdrawal plans from Iraq. On August 24, 2010 the commander of U.S. forces in the country, General Ray Odierno, said that American troop levels had dropped to 49,700. A private Iraqi firm, Asharq Research Center, conducted a poll of 1,150 people, aged 18 and above in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces from August 15-23 about what they thought about it. The majority said that it was the wrong time for the Americans to leave.

The Asharq Research Center asked four questions of Iraqis. The first was whether it was the right time for the U.S. to withdraw. 59.8% said it was not appropriate at this time, while 39.5% said it was. Next they asked whether people were for or against President Obama’s decision to end combat missions within Iraq. Respondents were more evenly divided with 53.1% disagreeing, and 46.2% agreeing. The third question was about what affect the U.S. withdrawal would have on Iraq. 51% said it would be bad for the country, with 25.8% saying it would be positive. The last topic was whether President Obama was concerned about Iraq. Respondents had mixed views with 41.9% saying that he didn’t care about Iraq, 39.8% said he did, while 15.5% didn’t know.

The August poll shows that Iraqis are quite apprehensive about the U.S. leaving Iraq. With no new government five months after parliamentary elections, and insurgents picking up with their high profile operations such as on August 25 when simultaneous attacks were carried out in 13 different cities including Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Kut, and Karbala, it’s no wonder why some Iraqis are asking whether this is the right time for the Americans to withdraw. Despite the problems and resentment that the invasion caused, it appears that a slight majority of those polled believe that the U.S. could help with at least security. That’s a view shared by the Iraqi military as the chief of staff of the armed forces recently said that the Americans should stay until 2020 to help with national defense. Gen. Odierno made similar statements as well in the past few days. The problem is that the Obama administration is working on a Washington agenda that is caught up with the recession, the war in Afghanistan, keeping Obama’s campaign promises about Iraq, and the November elections. That means while U.S. troops will continue to work with their Iraqi counterparts on training, advising, counterterrorism, development, and governance, and a small contingent will probably remain past the 2011 deadline for them to be out, the period of massive U.S. involvement in every facet of Iraqi society is coming to an end, and nothing is likely to change that. Iraqis are going to have to handle their own affairs with all the difficulties that entails whether they are ready or not.

August 2010 Asharq Research Center Polling Results

Is it the right time for the U.S. to withdraw?
59.8% No
39.5% Yes

Do you agree or disagree with President Obama’s decision to end combat missions on August 31, 2010?
53.1% Disagree
46.2% Agree

How will the U.S. withdrawal affect Iraq?
51% Negatively
25.8% Positively

Does President Obama care about Iraq?
41.9% No, he doesn’t
39.8% Yes, he does
15.5% Don’t know

SOURCES

Agence France Presse, “Iraqis say ‘wrong time’ for US withdrawal: poll,” 8/24/10

Meek, James Gordon, “Gen. Odierno warns troops may stay in Iraq well beyond Obama's 2011 withdrawal target,” New York Daily News, 8/22/10

Shadid, Anthony, “Insurgents Assert Their Strength With Wave of Bombings Across Iraq,” New York Times, 8/25/10

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