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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Iraq poll makes for grim reading
Nick Childs
BBC World Affairs Correspondent

Coming at a crucial moment, a new BBC/ABC News opinion poll suggests ordinary Iraqis have a damning verdict on the US surge.

US soldiers patrol outer Baghdad on 10 September
More than 93% of Sunnis support the insurgency, the poll suggests

The poll, conducted in August, also indicates that Iraqi opinion is at its gloomiest since the BBC/ABC News polls began in February 2004.

According to this latest poll, in key areas - security and the conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development - between 67 and 70% of Iraqis, or more than two-thirds, say the surge has made things worse.

All this as the political battle is about to erupt again in Washington over the future of the US mission.

The Bush administration is insisting progress is being made and that the surge needs more time.

That is likely to be the thrust of the much-anticipated Congressional testimony by the US commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, and the US Ambassador to the country, Ryan Crocker.

But that, it seems, is not how most Iraqis see it.

Grim reading

The Bush administration is making its case against a background of widespread scepticism in the United States and internationally.

Since the last BBC/ABC News poll in February, the number of Iraqis who think that US-led coalition forces should leave immediately has risen sharply, from 35 to 47%, although that does mean that a small majority - 53% - still says the forces should stay until security has improved.

But 85% of Iraqis say they have little or no confidence in US and UK forces.

These results will make grim reading for a country that is aspiring to be a normal, functioning state.

In terms of quality of life, 80% of Iraqis say the availability of jobs is bad or very bad, 93% say the same about electricity supplies, 75% for clean water, 92% for fuel.

And 77% of Iraqis say the ability to live where they want, without persecution, is bad or very bad.

If these figures are likely to be sobering for the Bush administration, they are not very encouraging for the Iraqi government either.

Sixty-one per cent of Iraqis say they have little or no confidence in the national government, and 66% disapprove of Nouri Maliki's handling of the job of prime minister.

'Well or quite well'

There are some more encouraging results.

An Iraqi is interviewed for the poll in Basra
More than 2,000 Iraqis responded to the poll nationwide

Sixty-two per cent of Iraqis still say Iraq should have a unified central government, and 98% say it would be a bad thing for the country to separate along sectarian lines.

And, given the images of violence and chaos emerging from Iraq, the fact that 40% of the people still say things are going well or quite well in their lives could be viewed quite positively. The figure has not changed since February.

This is the fourth BBC/ABC News poll since the US-led invasion. And the polling reveals two great divides.

The first is between the relative optimism recorded in November 2005, and the gloom reflected in the two polls conducted this year.

In between, there was the deadly bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra, which unleashed a bitter and deadly sectarianism.

In 2005, 64% of people thought their lives would get better in the coming year, and 69% thought conditions in Iraq as a whole would improve.

In February, those figures had slumped to 35% and 40%, and they have dipped further in the latest poll, to 29% and 22%.

Sectarian split

The other great divide is that revealed between the Sunni and Shia communities.

Eighty-eight per cent of Sunnis say things are going badly in their lives.

Fifty-four per cent of Shias think they are going well.

Also, strikingly, 93% of Sunnis say attacks on coalition forces are acceptable, compared with 50% of Shia (the overall total is 57%).

Overall, the Sunni community comes over as deeply depressed about its condition, not surprisingly given that it is the one whose degree of influence has been dramatically reduced by the changes since the US-led invasion, despite the efforts of the Americans and others to engage the Sunnis.

There is a sharp difference in each community's confidence in the national government - 4% of Sunnis have a degree of positive confidence in the national government, compared with 58% of Shias.

Only 34% of Sunnis have confidence in the Iraqi army, compared with 83% of Shias. The figures for the police are 37% and 83% respectively.

Only 2% of Sunnis approve of Nouri al-Maliki's performance, compared with 54% of Shias approve. But both communities think equally overwhelmingly (by 98%) that sectarian separation is a bad thing. Iraqis are also somewhat suspicious of their neighbours.

Seventy-nine per cent of them think that Iran is actively encouraging sectarian violence in their country, 66% think the same of Syria and 65% think likewise about Saudi Arabia.

Huge challenge

The Bush administration will no doubt be deploying many statistics and examples to argue that there have been security improvements in the last six months, as well as some glimmers of political progress, that mean the surge should be given more time.

And administration supporters may argue that there is bound to be a lag between actual events on the ground and public perceptions of them.

But in the war of nerves that continues in Iraq, perceptions and public opinion are critical elements.

The surge was meant to provide a breathing space in which political progress could make headway.

This survey suggests that the public atmosphere in which any political reconciliation must take place remains hugely challenging.

BBC graphic

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