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[casi] What Iraqis Really Think

What Iraqis Really Think
We asked them. What they told us is largely reassuring.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT
America, some say, is hobbled in its policies toward Iraq by not knowing
much about what Iraqis really think. Are they on the side of radical
Islamists? What kind of government would they like? What is their attitude
toward the U.S.? Do the Shiites hate us? Could Iraq become another Iran
under the ayatollahs? Are the people in the Sunni triangle the real problem?
Up to now we've only been able to guess. We've relied on anecdotal
temperature-takings of the Iraqi public, and have been at the mercy of
images presented to us by the press. We all know that journalists have a
bad-news bias: 10,000 schools being rehabbed isn't news; one school blowing
up is a weeklong feeding frenzy. And some of us who have spent time recently
in Iraq--I was an embedded reporter during the war--have been puzzled by the
postwar news and media imagery, which is much more negative than what many
individuals involved in reconstructing Iraq have been telling us. Well,
finally we have some evidence of where the truth may lie. Working with Zogby
International survey researchers, The American Enterprise magazine has
conducted the first scientific poll of the Iraqi public. Given the state of
the country, this was not easy. Security problems delayed our intrepid
fieldworkers several times. We labored at careful translations, regional
samplings and survey methods to make sure our results would accurately
reflect the views of Iraq's multifarious, long-suffering people. We
consulted Eastern European pollsters about the best way to elicit honest
answers from those conditioned to repress their true sentiments.

Conducted in August, our survey was necessarily limited in scope, but it
reflects a nationally representative sample of Iraqi views, as captured in
four disparate cities: Basra (Iraq's second largest, home to 1.7 million
people, in the far south), Mosul (third largest, far north), Kirkuk
(Kurdish-influenced oil city, fourth largest) and Ramadi (a resistance
hotbed in the Sunni triangle). The results show that the Iraqi public is
more sensible, stable and moderate than commonly portrayed, and that Iraq is
not so fanatical, or resentful of the U.S., after all. . Iraqis are
optimistic. Seven out of 10 say they expect their country and their personal
lives will be better five years from now. On both fronts, 32% say things
will become much better. . The toughest part of reconstructing their nation,
Iraqis say by 3 to 1, will be politics, not economics. They are nervous
about democracy. Asked which is closer to their own view--"Democracy can
work well in Iraq," or "Democracy is a Western way of doing things"--five
out of 10 said democracy is Western and won't work in Iraq. One in 10 wasn't
sure. And four out of 10 said democracy can work in Iraq. There were
interesting divergences. Sunnis were negative on democracy by more than 2 to
1; but, critically, the majority Shiites were as likely to say democracy
would work for Iraqis as not. People age 18-29 are much more rosy about
democracy than other Iraqis, and women are significantly more positive than
men. . Asked to name one country they would most like Iraq to model its new
government on from five possibilities--neighboring, Baathist Syria; neighbor
and Islamic monarchy Saudi Arabia; neighbor and Islamist republic Iran; Arab
lodestar Egypt; or the U.S.--the most popular model by far was the U.S. The
U.S. was preferred as a model by 37% of Iraqis selecting from those
five--more than Syria, Iran and Egypt put together. Saudi Arabia was in
second place at 28%. Again, there were important demographic splits. Younger
adults are especially favorable toward the U.S., and Shiites are more
admiring than Sunnis. Interestingly, Iraqi Shiites, coreligionists with
Iranians, do not admire Iran's Islamist government; the U.S. is six times as
popular with them as a model for governance. . Our interviewers inquired
whether Iraq should have an Islamic government, or instead let all people
practice their own religion. Only 33% want an Islamic government; a solid
60% say no. A vital detail: Shiites (whom Western reporters frequently
portray as self-flagellating maniacs) are least receptive to the idea of an
Islamic government, saying no by 66% to 27%. It is only among the minority
Sunnis that there is interest in a religious state, and they are split
evenly on the question. . Perhaps the strongest indication that an Islamic
government won't be part of Iraq's future: The nation is thoroughly
secularized. We asked how often our respondents had attended the Friday
prayer over the previous month. Fully 43% said "never." It's time to scratch
"Khomeini II" from the list of morbid fears. . You can also cross out "Osama
II": 57% of Iraqis with an opinion have an unfavorable view of Osama bin
Laden, with 41% of those saying it is a very unfavorable view. (Women are
especially down on him.) Except in the Sunni triangle (where the limited
support that exists for bin Laden is heavily concentrated), negative views
of the al Qaeda supremo are actually quite lopsided in all parts of the
country. And those opinions were collected before Iraqi police announced it
was al Qaeda members who killed worshipers with a truck bomb in Najaf. . And
you can write off the possibility of a Baath revival. We asked "Should Baath
Party leaders who committed crimes in the past be punished, or should past
actions be put behind us?" A thoroughly unforgiving Iraqi public stated by
74% to 18% that Saddam's henchmen should be punished. This new evidence on
Iraqi opinion suggests the country is manageable. If the small number of
militants conducting sabotage and murder inside the country can gradually be
eliminated by American troops (this is already happening), then the mass of
citizens living along the Tigris-Euphrates Valley are likely to make
reasonably sensible use of their new freedom. "We will not forget it was the
U.S. soldiers who liberated us from Saddam," said Abid Ali, an auto repair
shop owner in Sadr City last month--and our research shows that he's not

None of this is to suggest that the task ahead will be simple. Inchoate
anxiety toward the U.S. showed up when we asked Iraqis if they thought the
U.S. would help or hurt Iraq over a five-year period. By 50% to 36% they
chose hurt over help. This is fairly understandable; Iraqis have just lived
through a war in which Americans were (necessarily) flinging most of the
ammunition. These experiences may explain why women (who are more
antimilitary in all cultures) show up in our data as especially wary of the
U.S. right now. War is never pleasant, though U.S. forces made heroic
efforts to spare innocents in this one, as I illustrate with firsthand
examples in my book about the battles. Evidence of the comparative
gentleness of this war can be seen in our poll. Less than 30% of our sample
of Iraqis knew or heard of anyone killed in the spring fighting. Meanwhile,
fully half knew some family member, neighbor or friend who had been killed
by Iraqi security forces during the years Saddam held power. Perhaps the
ultimate indication of how comfortable Iraqis are with America's aims in
their region came when we asked how long they would like to see American and
British forces remain in their country: Six months? One year? Two years or
more? Two thirds of those with an opinion urged that the coalition troops
should stick around for at least another year. We're making headway in a
benighted part of the world. Hang in there, America. Mr. Zinsmeister, editor
in chief of The American Enterprise magazine and holder of the J.B. Fuqua
chair at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Boots on the
Ground: A Month With the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq," just out
from St. Martin's Press.

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