Iraqis Really Think
We asked them. What they told us is largely reassuring.
Wednesday, September 10, 2003 12:01 a.m.
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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 unrepresentative.
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.
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.
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