Polls show Iraqis live surrounded by violence, distrust US

Two new Iraqi-opinion polls released days before the four-year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, show contrasting hopes for future Sunni-Shiite relations, a high level of violence experienced by many Iraqis, a strongly negative opinion of US-led foreign forces, and a sectarian split on whether Iraq is currently embroiled in a civil war.

A poll (pdf) by the British Market research firm Opinion Research Business (ORB) indicates that while Iraqis have experienced a great deal of personal tragedy since the March 20, 2003, invasion, many Iraqis feel better under the current political system than the one ruled by Mr. Hussein.

One in four (26%) Iraqi adults have had a family relative murdered in the last three years, while 23% of those living in Baghdad have had a family/relative kidnapped in the last three years.

These are among the findings released today from the largest poll into Iraqi opinion ever to be published. Carried out by UK research firm ORB, which has been tracking public opinion in Iraq since 2005, the poll shows that despite the horrendous personal security problems only 26% of the country preferred life under the previous regime of Saddam Hussein, with almost half (49%) preferring life under the current political system. As one may expect, it is the Sunnis who are most likely to back the previous regime (51%) with the Shias (66%) preferring the current arrangements.

London's Sunday Times, which published the ORB poll on Sunday, reports that the findings show that support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has almost doubled over the past six months.

Maliki, who derives a significant element of his support from Moqtada al-Sadr, the hardline Shi'ite militant, and his Mahdi army, has begun trying to overcome criticism that his government favours the Shi'ites, going out of his way to be seen with Sunni tribal leaders. He is also under pressure from the US to include more Sunnis in an expected government reshuffle.

The poll suggests a significant increase in support for Maliki. A survey conducted by ORB in September last year found that only 29% of Iraqis had a favourable opinion of the prime minister.

The ORB poll also shows that a majority of Iraqis believe the security situation in Iraq will get better when the "multi national forces" leave Iraq, with 53 percent saying it will be "a great deal better" or "a little better" as opposed to 26% who say it will be "a great deal worse" or "a little worse." The numbers change when the respondents' religion is taken into account, with Sunni Muslims split between 42 percent "better" and 42 percent "worse," and Shiites predicting 62 percent "better" to 14 percent "worse," indicating that the Sunni Muslims, and more specifically, Sunni Arabs, are more hesitant to see the foreign forces leave. (The ORB poll doesn't differentiate between Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds, the latter of whom view the US-led forces more favorably and are less involved in Iraq's sectarian strife.)

A second poll (pdf), sponsored by four news organizations – USA Today, ABC News, the BBC, and German TV network ARD, – provides a deeper glimpse into the violence permeating Iraqi life.

Eighty percent of Iraqis report attacks nearby – car bombs, snipers, kidnappings, armed forces fighting each other or abusing civilians. It's worst by far in the capital of Baghdad, but by no means confined there.

The personal toll is enormous. More than half of Iraqis, 53 percent, have a close friend or relative who's been hurt or killed in the current violence. One in six says someone in their own household has been harmed. Eighty-six percent worry about a loved one being hurt; two-thirds worry deeply. Huge numbers limit their daily activities to minimize risk. Seven in 10 report multiple signs of traumatic stress.

The BBC reports that the number of Iraqis who describe their lives as "good" has dropped from 71 percent three years ago to 40 percent today. But like the ORB poll, the BBC also notes the survey results show a large sectarian divide about the prospects for the future of Iraq.

The poll paints a picture of an increasingly polarised Iraq, with acutely diverging views between Sunni Arabs and Shias - Sunnis appearing more pessimistic.

There are also regional differences, with pessimism most keenly felt across central Iraq, including Baghdad, where Sunni Arabs are most numerous.

USA Today, another sponsor of the second poll, reports that although a majority of Iraqis view life as better now than before the invasion (although by a lesser extent than the ORB poll indicated), the numbers reflect a drop in optimism.

The Sunday Times in London published a poll Sunday of 5,019 Iraqis taken by a British firm, Opinion Research Business, from Feb. 10-22. It found that Iraqis by 49%-26% preferred life under the new government to life under Saddam.

In the USA TODAY/ABC News Poll, Iraqis by 43%-36% said life was better than before the invasion. That's a decline from the optimism in the November 2005 survey, however, when by 51%-29% Iraqis said life was better.

However, the USA Today/BBC/ABC News/ARD poll results still indicate a slight majority of Iraqis are optimistic that things will be better a year from now, although those results, like the ORB results, show a deep sectarian split. While 40 percent of Iraqis think their lives will be "somewhat better" or "much better" in a year, only five percent of Sunnis think that, while 67 percent of Sunnis (34 percent of Iraqis overall) think their lives will be "somewhat worse" or "much worse" in a year.

One apparent shared opinion between Sunni and Shiite Arabs is their negative view of US-led forces in Iraq.

The United States gets much of the blame. As noted, in the most troubling result from an American perspective, the number of Iraqis who call it "acceptable" to attack U.S. or coalition forces has soared from 17 percent in early 2004 to 51 percent now.

The main source of this antipathy is disaffected Sunni Arabs, the group that lost power with the overthrow of Saddam. Ninety-four percent of Sunni Arabs call attacks on U.S. forces acceptable. That compares with 35 percent of newly empowered Shiites (still a large number to endorse violence), vs. 7 percent of Kurds, who are far more favorably inclined toward the United States.

Even among Shiites, eight in 10 disapprove of the way the United States and other coalition forces have carried out their responsibilities in Iraq. More than eight in 10 Shiites (as well as 97 percent of Sunni Arabs) oppose the presence of U.S. and other forces in their country. (Kurds, again, differ powerfully; 75 percent support the U.S. presence.) More than seven in 10 Shiites – and nearly all Sunni Arabs – think the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is making security worse.

The two polls had different numbers when it came to assessing whether Iraqis thought the country was in a civil war or close to one, USA Today reports, although in both polls, Sunnis were much more likely to call it a civil war than Shiites.

In the Opinion Research Business survey, 27% of Iraqis said their nation was in a civil war and 22% said it was "close" to one. In the USA TODAY/ABC News survey, 42% said Iraq was in a civil war and an additional 25% said civil war was likely.

The ORB poll was conducted between Feb. 10-22, 2007, and involved "face-to-face interviews amongst a nationally representative sample of 5,019 adults aged 18 years + throughout Iraq." The USA Today/BBC/ABC News/ARD poll was conducted from Feb. 25-March 5, 2007, and involved interviews "among a random national sample of 2,212 Iraqis aged 18 and up."

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