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Last Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005, 13:15 GMT
Danger cannot dent Iraqi optimism
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs Editor, in Baghdad

Tribal leaders attend a SCIRI election rally
Many Shias polled thought life was better now
In March last year the BBC, with several other news organisations, published the results of an Iraq-wide opinion poll - the predecessor of the one that has been published today.

My producer and I decided to present the findings from a big household goods market in the centre of Baghdad.

I did my various on-camera links among the market stalls, then wandered off on my own while the producer and cameraman carried on filming.

I talked to a few shopkeepers, drank a cup of the citrus tea which Baghdad people love and shopped.

On Monday though, I won't be going to the market to present the findings of this year's BBC poll.

If I venture out, I'll be guarded by security men and will be under instructions not to stay anywhere for more than a few minutes.

Strong government

Things have changed radically in Baghdad since March last year - and not for the better.

Key findings in more detail

Today, kidnappings are frequent and there are gangs who go round killing people simply for being Sunnis or Shia Muslims. On my own, I don't suppose I'd last half an hour.

No wonder, then, that the people whose views are reflected in the new opinion poll are so obsessed with the need for security.

Given that the Shia-dominated government which has been in power for most of 2005 has been so unable to provide it, it's not surprising the great majority of people told our pollsters they wanted strong government more than anything else.

Yet in a country as complex as Iraq, opinion polls can be misleading.

The result which will probably be most quoted from this one is that 71% of people said their lives were good, while 29% said they were bad. Pretty extraordinary, you might think, given the daily headlines and the television pictures.

There's constant, daily violence in several provinces - but the majority of the country is moderately peaceful.

If you live in the Kurdish north-east, for instance, you'll be pretty happy at the way things are going, since the Kurds have been left alone to do as they like.

The Shia are reasonably content too (despite the deliberate bombing campaign against them) because they pretty much run the country now.

They and the Kurds together probably make up 65% or 70% of Iraq's population. But as long as most Sunnis are resentful and angry and feel excluded from power, there won't be any peace in Iraq.

Winners and losers

Most of the 71% who say their lives are good are Kurds and Shia; a good proportion of the 29% who say their lives are bad are no doubt Sunnis.

Street scene in Iraq
Normal life can be fraught with tension in the capital

It may not be quite as neat and tidy as that, but these figures are almost exactly the same as they were in last year's BBC poll.

In other words, the polarisation of Iraqi society between winners and losers continues unabated.

But security apart, people's lives certainly have got better. There are many more consumer goods and wages have not only gone up, but are paid more regularly.

Yet people still complain bitterly about the bad electricity supply, and if the poll had been conducted in the summer they'd be complaining about water shortages too.

Iraqis always thought America could do everything; now, they say, it can't even provide power and water.

And it can't guarantee a safe election.

There is a new industry now - staging fake attacks in order to enhance a politician's status.

A friend who is standing in this week's election told me that three different people had come to him, each saying that if he wanted to increase his visibility and credibility, they could organise an assassination attempt on him, or perhaps a kidnapping. His own survival was guaranteed.

My friend, the most civilised and peaceable of men, thanked them politely and said no.


So here, courtesy of the BBC poll, is a snapshot of Iraq today: a country whose people often seem close to civil war, yet feel overwhelmingly safe in their own neighbourhoods.

Iraqis are scathing about the performance of the American, British and other troops, yet believe it's too soon for them to leave.

People are so worried the country is falling apart that they want a strong government to take control, yet believe that in a few years' time things will be really good here.

These findings are only useful if you bear in mind how complex and varied Iraqi society is.

Often, when I write my online column about Iraq and try to explain about life in this country, someone will write in and say something like: "My son is a soldier in Iraq and people there keep telling him what a wonderful job the US is doing", or alternatively: "Iraqis just want to get rid of all foreign troops, period."

Both things are true; it's just that different Iraqis are saying them. Unless you understand who they are - and why - it's impossible to make out what is happening in the country.

And in the meantime the one thing that everyone can agree with is that life is much more dangerous in Iraq than it was when our last opinion poll came out.


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