Still Waiting for the Euphoria
Five months after the end of the war, Americans remain deeply ambivalent over whether it was right or wrong to invade Iraq. In part, that’s because it’s still not clear whether we were, in fact, welcomed by the people we set out to liberate.
Most people know by now that the popularity of the United States has dramatically declined across the Arab world during the last half year. But how about in Iraq itself? Are Iraqis glad that we came? Do they see a brighter future ahead? Do they want us to stay and see them through this mess or do they want us to pack up and get out?
In August, I conducted the first serious public opinion survey of Iraqis since the end of the war, in hopes of getting answers to some of these questions.
Polling in Iraq is not easy for many reasons. People are scared, unused to free speech and often eager to give the answers they think you want to hear.
Unable to conduct a U.S.-style telephone survey, we instead sent out dozens of door-to-door interviewers to talk to women in their households and men in public places. Bowing to custom, women interviewed women and men interviewed men.
What would be a routine process in most countries was anything but in Iraq. Our teams of interviewers were caught in a crossfire in Ramadi during an attack on a military convoy. In Kirkuk, one of our supervisors was seized by Kurdish forces and was not released until several calls were made -- and a bounty paid -- to locals. Interviewers were detained several times in Basra, where they were also chased by an unidentified automobile. And checkpoints manned by armed soldiers were everywhere, making travel difficult.
We conducted 600 interviews in four metropolitan areas that we determined would give us the right cross section of the population: Basra (mainly Shiite), Ramadi, (near Baghdad and mainly Sunni), Kirkuk (Kurd and Turkmen), and Mosul (Sunni and Christian). Our results date from late August, but we have no reason to believe opinions have changed substantially since then.
What we found is that Iraqis, like people all around the world, hold nuanced views. They are glad to see Saddam Hussein gone -- as shown by their desire to punish members of the old regime -- but they don’t really trust the Americans who drove him out.
They are intrigued by democracy but worry that it may not be compatible with their culture. They object to being occupied and are eager to take the reins of government themselves. But those in the minority are a little more nervous at the prospect of democracy than those in the majority.
Here are some specifics:
* Seven in 10 told us that Iraq would be a better country and that they themselves would be better off in five years.
* Only two in five (39%) said that “democracy can work in Iraq,” while a majority (51%) agreed that “democracy is a Western way of doing things and will not work here.” Shiites -- who suffered the most under Hussein and who make up the majority in Iraq -- are more evenly split about democracy (45%-46%), while Sunnis are far less favorable.
* Asked about the kind of government that would be best for Iraq, half of all respondents (49%) said they preferred “a democracy with elected representatives guided by Sharia (Islamic law).” Twenty-four percent prefer an “Islamic state ruled by clerics based on Sharia.” Only one in five (21%) preferred a “secular democracy with elected representatives.”
* Three out of five made it clear that they wanted Iraqis left alone to work out a government for themselves, while only one in three want the United States and Britain to “help make sure a fair government is set up.” Two out of three Iraqis -- and seven in 10 Sunnis -- want U.S. and British forces out of Iraq in a year.
* Three out of four Iraqis want the leaders of Hussein’s Baath Party punished. Osama bin Laden is viewed favorably by 36% and unfavorably by 47%.
* Half of all Iraqis interviewed say the United States will hurt Iraq over the next five years. Only 36% say the U.S. will help.
One thing is clear: The predicted euphoria of Iraqis has not materialized.
Months after the U.S. military victory, American policymakers and troops are left not only with the daunting task of nation-building and restoring the country’s devastated infrastructure but also with having to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis who are not keen on the U.S. occupation.
Iraqis, like their fellow Arabs, feel victimized by a history of betrayal and humiliation at the hands of Western powers. It appears that U.S. policymakers overlooked or misread this sentiment.
John Zogby is president and chief executive officer of an independent polling company in Utica, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.