Page last updated at 10:17 GMT, Monday, 17 March 2008

Poll suggests flicker of optimism in Iraq

By Adam Brookes
BBC News, Baghdad

Iraqi men sit at a pavement cafe, as a US army patrol walks past
Iraqis are less opposed to the US presence than in previous polls
Public opinion in Iraq is changing - fitfully and in complex and sometimes contradictory ways.

Our poll suggests a flicker of optimism among some Iraqis and, perhaps, signs of a new political pragmatism.

But sectarian division and mistrust of authority remain widespread.

Overall, 55% of respondents say their lives are good, compared with 39% in our last poll, taken in August 2007 - a sizeable increase.

Sunni discontent

Unpick that figure a little and you find a theme that runs through many of the poll's results: Sunni, Shia and Kurd hold very different views.

Even though many indicators show Iraqis opposed to the US, there seems to be a growing awareness of what might happen if the US pulls out
Prof Toby Dodge
Queen Mary College, London

When asked how "things are going in your life these days", 67% of Sunni Iraqis replied overwhelmingly in the negative.

That figure has dropped by a fifth since August last year - but it is still strikingly high.

Shia Iraqis, however, answered very positively, with 62% saying quite good or very good.

That figure is also on the rise.

Kurds were the happiest, with 73% saying quite good or very good.

When asked how they expect things to be one year from now, respondents showed increased optimism: 45% said things would be somewhat better or much better.

That is up from 29% six months ago.

One third thought things would stay the same, and 19% thought things would be worse.

But that optimism is more pronounced among Shia and Kurds than among Sunnis - 70% of Sunnis replied that things would be the same or worse in a year's time.

So the responses suggest that a good number of Iraqis are feeling better about their lives and where they are going.

This may reflect the decrease in violence in key areas of the country that has followed the "surge" in US forces and the ceasefires announced by militias.

But it seems to be a fragile optimism and one not shared equally among different ethnic and sectarian groups.

Troops out?

The responses on security are striking. Half of those questioned said that security was the most important issue facing Iraq.

But 62% said that security in their neighbourhood was quite good or very good - an increase of 19 percentage points in just six months, and compelling evidence that Iraqis, overall, feel safer.

Look again at the sectarian divide - 65% of Sunnis said security in their neighbourhood was bad or very bad, while only 30% of Shia said so.

US soldier in Iraq
Over a third of Iraqis believe US troops should pull out immediately
Such a big difference suggests that Sunni and Shia are experiencing the security situation in profoundly different ways - something that could make reconciliation harder to achieve.

Attitudes to the United States military presence, the poll suggests, remain strongly negative.

But some trends might give American commanders cause to hope.

The presence of US troops is opposed by 72% - but that is down by seven points from six months ago.

And 61% feel the US presence makes the security situation worse - down nine points from the earlier poll.

The number of respondents who believe attacks on US forces are justified has dropped 15 points in the last six months to 42%.

While more than a third of Iraqis believe the United States should pull out immediately, 63% believe the Americans should leave only after a period during which security and government get stronger.

And a full 80% believe the US should continue to fight Al Qaeda and foreign jihadis in Iraq.

Some of these findings appear contradictory. But Professor Toby Dodge of Queen Mary College, London, says they suggest an increased pragmatism.

"The big counterintuitive finding is that even though many indicators show Iraqis opposed to the United States, there seems to be a growing awareness of what might happen if the US pulls out," he says.

One way to read these numbers, he says, is that Iraqis have "looked into the abyss" of all-out civil war, and taken a step back.

Iraq united

But if American commanders can feel a shade more sanguine on the question of security, responses on the economy and governance may ring alarm bells.

When asked about conditions in their neighbourhood, the responses were very negative - 70% said the availability of jobs was bad; 88% said the electricity supply was bad; 68% said the availability of clean water was bad.

And here the sectarian divide was much less pronounced - Sunni and Shia respondents appeared equally unhappy at the provision of services.

One economic bright spot: the availability of household goods is now quite good or very good for 65% of those questioned, up 26 percentage points from a year ago.

Overall, our poll found Iraqis still want to be Iraqi.

The thoughtful, anonymous respondents to our poll tell us that they remain utterly divided on the question of whether the US-led coalition was right to invade
When asked if they support a "united Iraq", 66% responded positively.

Confidence in the national government is sluggishly improving.

From a high of 53% in 2004, it slumped to 39% a year ago.

It is now back up to 49%.

And 58% of those polled believe the Iraqi armed forces are strong.

But nearly the same number believe their local militia is strong.

Taken altogether the poll's findings suggest:

  • that Iraq is fractured and disillusioned - but tentatively hoping for better;
  • that the ghastly experiences of 2006 and 2007 have abated somewhat;
  • that Iraqis still want to live in a unified country but confidence in their leaders is shaky;
  • that they feel the US-led coalition has done a pretty poor job of occupying their country;
  • that militias are a big part of life;
  • that they respect their teachers greatly;
  • that they want more for their kids; that they want the Americans to leave, but perhaps not yet;
  • that they are desperate for a reliable electricity supply;
  • that Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds have very different stories to tell about what's happening to them.

And, five years on, the thoughtful, anonymous respondents to our poll tell us that they remain utterly divided on the question of whether the US-led coalition was right to invade.

And, once again, they are divided along sectarian and ethnic lines - 95% of Sunnis say the invasion was wrong. 65% of Shia say it was right, as do 87% of Kurds.

The poll was the fifth conducted for BBC News, ABC News and other broadcasters. 2,228 Iraqi adults from all over the country were questioned in mid February. The margin of error is +/- 2.5%.

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