Security Gains Reverse Iraq's Spiral
Though Serious Problems Remain

Improved security and economic conditions have reversed Iraqis' spiral of despair, sharply improving hopes for the country's future. Yet deep problems remain in terms of security, living conditions, reconciliation and political progress alike.

Fifty-five percent of Iraqis say things in their own lives are going well, well up from 39 percent as recently as August. More, 62 percent, rate local security positively, up 19 points. And the number who expect conditions nationally to improve in the year ahead has doubled, to 46 percent in this new national poll by ABC News, the BBC, ARD German TV and the Japanese broadcaster NHK.

Click here for PDF with charts and full questionnaire.

Without directly crediting the surge in U.S. forces, fewer report security as the main problem in their own lives – 25 percent, nearly half its peak last spring. Forty-six percent say local security has improved in the past six months, nearly double last summer's level.

The number of Iraqis who feel entirely unsafe in their own area has dropped by two-thirds, to 10 percent. And with Sunni Arab buy-in, U.S.-funded Awakening Councils, created to provide local security, are more popular than the Iraqi government itself.

Even more striking is the halt in worsening views. In August, Iraqis by 61-11 percent said security in the country had gotten worse, not better, in the previous six months. Today, by 36-26 percent, more say security has improved. The new positive margin is not large. But the 35-point drop in views that security is worsening is the single largest change in this poll.

BEEN BETTER – In almost all cases, however, the improvement since August and March still has not brought Iraqi sentiment back to its pre-2007 levels. While 46 percent now expect improvements for the country in the next year, that's still far below its level in November 2005, 69 percent. While 55 percent say their own lives are going well, that's down from 71 percent in late 2005.

Similarly, while there's been a big drop in the number who cite security as their own main problem, 50 percent still volunteer it as the nation's main problem overall – little changed from 56 percent in August. One in four Iraqis still report suicide attacks, sectarian fighting and other violence in their own area in just the past six months. And the provision of basic services has barely budged; 88 percent lack adequate electricity.

Much of the improvement since August is driven by Baghdad and Anbar provinces, focal points of the surge. Seventy-one percent in Anbar, and fewer in Baghdad but still 43 percent, now rate local security positively – up from zero in both locales last year. While a dramatic gain, most in Baghdad, home to a quarter of Iraqis, still say security is bad – a reflection of continued, albeit reduced, violence there.

Economic improvement complements the security gains. Fifty-seven percent rate their household finances positively, a 20-point jump, again steepest in Baghdad (especially its Sadr City area) and Anbar. The availability of basic consumer goods has soared even more sharply; 65 percent rate it positively, up by 26 points since August to its highest in polls dating to early 2004. And family incomes are up by 26 percent, about $80 a month.

This poll, marking the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war on March 19, 2003, is the fifth in Iraq by ABC News and other media partners. It consists of face-to-face interviews with a random national sample of more than 2,200 Iraqi adults.

CHALLENGES – Challenges remain broad and deep. Beyond their own lives, most Iraqis, 55 percent, still say things are going badly for the country, even if that's down from a record 78 percent in August. Violence remains common, particularly in the cities; local car bombs or suicide attacks, just within the past six months, are reported by 45 percent in Baghdad, 51 percent in Kirkuk and 39 percent in Mosul.

Living conditions for many remain dire, with sizable majorities reporting a lack of electricity, fuel, clean water, medical care and sufficient jobs. Improvement in all these has been modest at best. Six in 10 say they can't live where they choose without facing persecution, although this, too, is well down from its peak.

Sectarian differences remain vast. While more than six in 10 Shiites and seven in 10 Kurds say their own lives are going well, that drops to a third in the Sunni Arab minority. Eighty-three percent of Sunnis rate national conditions negatively. And while half of Shiites and six in 10 Kurds expect their children's lives to be better than their own, a mere 12 percent of Sunnis share that most basic hope.

Ratings of the national government and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remain weak – 43 and 40 percent positive, respectively – and sharply split by sectarian group. Just half think legislators are willing to compromise on key issues. The country divides on the state of Sunni-Shiite relations, and Arab-Kurdish relations are rated more negatively.

In a telling result, one question asked Iraqis whether this is a good time for the millions who have fled the country to return. Forty-five percent say yes, now is the time for those Iraqis to come back – but 54 percent say it's not. (Not surprisingly, where security is rated positively, Iraqis are 20 points more likely to say it's time to return.)

THE U.S. – Views of the United States, while still broadly negative, have moderated in some respects. Just shy of half, 49 percent, now say it was right for the U.S.-led coalition to have invaded, up by 12 points from August; the previous high was 48 percent in the first ABC News poll in Iraq in February 2004.

Similarly, the number of Iraqis who call it "acceptable" to attack U.S. forces has declined for the first time in these polls, down to 42 percent after peaking at 57 percent in August. Even with a 15-point drop, however, that's still a lot of Iraqis to endorse such violence. (Just 4 percent, by contrast, call it acceptable to attack Iraqi government forces.)

Sunni Arabs, dispossessed by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, are a good example. In August 93 percent of Sunnis called it acceptable to attack U.S. forces. Today, that's down to 62 percent – a dramatic decline, but one that still leaves six in 10 Sunnis on the side of anti-U.S. attacks.

Other measures are a little better, if not good. Just 20 percent of Iraqis express confidence in U.S. forces, up slightly from 14 percent last summer. Just 29 percent say U.S. forces have done a good job in Iraq, up 10 points. Only 27 percent say the presence of U.S. forces is making overall security better in Iraq, up 9 points; 61 percent say it's making things worse.

Indeed, on a basic level, the presence of foreign forces remains unwelcome: Just 26 percent of Iraqis support having U.S. and coalition troops in their country, up a scant 5 points. But this doesn't mean most favor immediate withdrawal. Well under half, 38 percent, say the United States should leave now, down from a peak 47 percent in August.

One reason is that Iraqis are divided on what might follow U.S. withdrawal; 46 percent think it would make security better, but the rest say it would make security worse or leave it as it is now. Those who think immediate withdrawal would improve security are twice as likely to support it.

Moreover, despite their antipathy, big majorities see a continued role for the United States. From two-thirds to 80 percent of Iraqis support future U.S. efforts conducting security operations against al Qaeda or foreign jihadis in Iraq; providing military training, weapons and reconstruction aid; and assisting in security vis-à-vis Iran and Turkey. The most popular of these is a U.S. role confronting al Qaeda.

Americans long have been conflicted about the war: Broadly unhappy with its costs in human and material terms alike, yet torn on how and when best to leave Iraq in a tenable condition. Iraqis, it turns out, are equally conflicted on these issues.

THE SURGE – On a national level, as noted, 36 percent of Iraqis say security has improved in the last six months; that's jumped from just 11 percent in August. Of them, 82 percent express at least some confidence improved security will continue, although fewer, about a third, are "very" confident of it.

At the same time, few give the United States direct credit for security gains. When those who see security as having improved are asked who deserves the most credit, Iraqi institutions lead the way – 26 percent cite the national government, 18 percent the police, 13 percent the army. Just 4 percent mention the United States or U.S. forces.

Direct ratings of the surge likely reflect the United States' general unpopularity. Iraqis by 53-36 percent say the surge has made security worse, not better, in the areas where it's occurred; that, however, has improved sharply, from 70-18 percent in August.

Similarly, Iraqis by 49-30 percent say the surge has made security worse in the rest of the country (it was 68-12 percent in August); by 43-21 percent say it's worsened conditions for political dialogue (70-10 percent in August); by 44-25 percent say it's worsened the ability of the Iraqi government to do its work (65-12 percent in August) and by 42-22 percent say it's worsened the pace of economic development (67-6 percent in August).

These, again, have to be viewed through the filter of general antipathy toward the United States. What's notable is the change in the number of Iraqis who say the surge has made any of these conditions worse – down by 17 to 27 points.

THE COUNCILS and THE SUNNIS – Moreover, an integral part of the surge strategy – the creation of U.S.-funded and -equipped "Awakening Councils" to provide local security – is generally popular. The councils are better-rated than the United States, local leaders, local militias and even the Iraqi government.

Fifty-six percent of Iraqis express confidence in the councils, compared with 49 percent in the national government of Iraq, 47 percent in local leaders, 22 percent in local militias and 20 percent in U.S. forces. The councils attract confidence from 73 percent of Sunni Arabs – generally the most alienated Iraqis – as well as from 60 percent of Shiites.

These councils began in Sunni Anbar province, where confidence in them peaks, at 88 percent; there now are both Sunni- and Shiite-dominated versions. (They're viewed far more dimly by Kurds.)

While just 27 percent of Iraqis say the presence of U.S. forces is making security better overall, nearly twice as many, 51 percent, say the Awakening Councils are making security better. Just 16 percent say the councils are making security worse, vs. 61 percent who say that about U.S. forces. And Iraqis almost unanimously reject attacks on Awakening Council leaders; 94 percent call these unacceptable.

Sixty-four percent of Sunnis say the councils are making security better, vs. 49 percent of Shiites and 31 percent of Kurds. This, along with the councils' general cross-doctrinal popularity, makes them look like a potentially effective tool in reassuring Sunni suspicions of the U.S. and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad alike.

The challenge is what happens with these councils over time, with some analysts expressing concern they could be drawn into sectarian conflict. Fifty-nine percent of Iraqis – including equal numbers of Sunnis and Shiites alike – say the councils should be incorporated into the mainstream Iraqi security forces.

BAGHDAD/ANBAR – As noted, it's Baghdad and Anbar, focal points of the surge, where many of the changes have been greatest – but where conditions still lag in real terms. Ratings of local security have improved by 43 points in Baghdad (from nil in August) and by 32 points in Anbar (nil in March). They've advanced more slowly in the rest of the country, by 10 points since August, to 68 percent positive – still much higher than in Baghdad.

Positive ratings of the availability of local goods have jumped remarkably, from zero to 70 percent in Baghdad, and from 28 to 67 percent in Anbar, compared with a 10-point rise in the rest of the country. The availability of jobs is rated positively by 43 percentage points more in Anbar now than in August, and by 18 points more in Baghdad, compared with just 4 points more elsewhere.

Last August, in Anbar and Baghdad alike, no respondents felt they could live where they wanted without persecution; today 86 percent in Anbar, and 46 in percent in Baghdad, feel they can. It's been flat in the rest of the country, +2 points, to 34 percent.

Views that the United States was right to invade Iraq have gained 25 points in Baghdad, to 46 percent. But in Anbar, the Sunni heartland, this has not changed – no one there says the invasion was right, today as in the polls last August and March alike.

None in Anbar, either, express confidence in U.S. forces, or approve of the way they've done their work in Iraq. But there is this change: In August 76 percent in Anbar said U.S. forces should leave Iraq immediately. Today fewer than half as many, 34 percent, say so.

For all this, Baghdad and Anbar are hardly hotbeds of optimism. Just a quarter in Anbar say things are going well in their own lives (though that's up from no one last August); so do 41 percent in Baghdad, compared with 62 percent elsewhere. Compared to others in Iraq, fewer in either Anbar or Baghdad rate the country's situation positively, or expect their own lives, or the country's condition, to improve in the year ahead.

Another challenge is the strength of militias, especially in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite Sadr City area: There 70 percent express confidence in the local militia, far more than the level of militia support in the rest of the country (20 percent) and greater than the level of confidence among Sadr City residents in either the national government (55 percent) or the Iraqi army (42 percent).

RECONCILIATION vs. DIVISION – Other results, however, show majority support for internal cohesion and reconciliation in Iraq. In one example, 89 percent of Iraqis say Sunnis, many of whom boycotted previous elections, should now participate in the political process – including 95 percent of Sunnis themselves.

One in six Iraqis say the separation of people along sectarian lines has occurred in their area – almost exclusively in Baghdad and Basra, where (excluding Baghdad's Sadr City) it's reported by 36 and 34 percent respectively – almost all of whom say it's been mainly forcible rather than voluntary. Yet 92 percent call this a bad thing for Iraq. And 69 percent favor allowing former low- and mid-level members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to hold government jobs – including 63 percent of Shiites, despite their suppression by the Baathist system.

On a structural level, 66 percent of Iraqis say the country should continue as a unified nation with its central government in Baghdad, as opposed to a confederation of regional states or outright partition. While Sunnis have been and almost unanimously remain behind a single state, there's been an advance in this view among Shiites, from 41 percent last March to 56 percent in August and 67 percent now. The holdouts are Kurds, nearly all of whom want autonomy or semi-autonomy (details below).

Despite support for cohesion, the country nonetheless is very much divided along sectarian lines. Slightly more than half of Iraqis say they live in Shiite-only or Sunni-only areas (26 percent in each); add those who live in predominantly Sunni or Shiite areas and just 15 percent describe themselves as living in mixed locales. This is even though Sunnis Arabs account for 30 percent of all Iraqis in this survey, Shiites 51 percent and Kurds (who are Sunnis, but not Sunni Arabs) nearly all the rest.

Iraqis also divide evenly on the state of Shiite-Sunni relations – 48 percent say they're good, 51 percent bad – with more Shiites saying they're good (58 percent) than Sunni Arabs who agree (37 percent). Shiites also are more apt than Sunnis to say relations between people of these two doctrines are improving, 47 percent vs. 29 percent.

About half of Iraqis say they have a close friend of another doctrine; of them, 18 percent say it's not safe for them to associate publicly. And in one other result on doctrinal divisions, 59 percent of Iraqis say they'd refuse to have a grown child of theirs marry a person of another religious doctrine.

LIVING CONDITIONS – One thing on which Iraqis tend to agree is the difficult state of their living conditions. In the single worst item, 88 percent say their supply of electricity is bad. (In another measure, just two in 10 report receiving electricity from power lines for more than 12 hours a day, although that is up from just 12 percent last March.)

It's not just about power. Eight in 10 lack adequate fuel for cooking or driving. Sixty-eight percent rate their supply of clean water negatively. Sixty-two percent say they lack adequate medical care, a number that's grown sharply from 36 percent in November 2005 – likely relating to the flight of doctors, among other professionals, who've had the wherewithal to leave the country.

As noted, ratings of local security and family finances are sharply better; so is protection from crime – closely related to security and now rated positively by 54 percent, up from 35 percent in August (but still below its peak, 66 percent in November 2005).

The biggest improvement, also as noted, is in the availability of basic household goods, up 26 points to 65 percent positive. Laggards, though, include some essentials: electricity, medical care, clean water, fuel, enough jobs to go around and freedom of movement.

THE KURDS – The semi-autonomous Kurdish north continues as an exception in many cases. Spared the disruption to the south, Kurds are vastly more apt to say they have clean water, adequate medical care and sufficient jobs, and to rate local government positively.

Nine in 10 Kurds say their local security and crime protection are good, compared with, respectively, just 35 percent and 23 percent of Sunni Arabs. Electricity and fuel, though, are as big a problem in the Kurdish provinces as elsewhere.

There are attitudinal differences too. Suppressed by Saddam and long supported by the United States, the Kurds have far more favorable views of the invasion (87 percent support it, compared with 5 percent of Sunni Arabs) and the subsequent performance of U.S. forces in Iraq (63 percent positive, compared with 7 percent of Sunni Arabs), including the effectiveness of the surge.

Kurds, as noted, are far less wedded to the idea of maintaining Iraq as a single, centrally controlled state; envisioning a fully independent Kurdistan, 52 percent prefer breaking Iraq into separate independent states (it was very similar, 49 percent, in August, up from 30 percent last March). An additional 35 percent would like to see a federation of regional states, with just 10 percent for a single unified country run from Baghdad.

This poll was conducted after some Turkish incursions into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish separatist forces of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, but before the heaviest recent cross-border attacks. Sixty-one percent of Kurds called Turkish incursions unjustified (as did more Shiites, 77 percent, but many fewer Sunni Arabs, who are more closely attuned to Sunni-dominated Turkey).

A large majority of Sunnis, and a smaller majority of Shiites, said Iraq is not doing enough to control the PKK (80 and 58 percent, respectively); far fewer Kurds, 34 percent, agreed.

There's another division, on the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk; a referendum there is pending to decide whether it should become part of the Kurdish region. Big majorities of Sunni Arabs (95 percent) and Shiites (80 percent) oppose it; by contrast, every Kurdish respondent in this survey – 100 percent – supported bringing Kirkuk into the so-called Kurdish Autonomous Region.

There's also a difference in assessments of cross-ethnic relations, particularly between Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Fifty-five percent of Kurds say relations between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq are good; just 24 percent of Sunnis agree. And Sunnis stand out in their view that these relations are getting worse; 44 percent say so, while just 15 percent see improvement.

BASRA – Across the country, in the Shiite-dominated south, is another area of interest: Basra, where Iraqi forces assumed responsibility from the British in December. Although there have been recent protests about security in Basra, 68 percent there rate local security positively, as many as in the country overall.

The source of that security, though, is hard to divine: Basra residents are as apt to say local militia have a strong presence in their area (72 percent) as to say Iraqi government forces have a strong presence (an identical 72 percent). That tension may be reflected in another finding: Just 14 percent in Basra, the fewest anywhere, say they have the freedom to go where they want safely.

As Shiites, Iraqis in Basra tend to have a more favorable opinion of the central government – 62 percent confident – than do most Iraqis elsewhere. That level of confidence, however has slipped by 14 points in Basra since August.

WORST OFF – Three other locales are in contention as the worst-off in Iraq: Mosul, Diyala and Kirkuk. The Sunni insurgency al Qaeda in Iraq regrouped in Mosul, a mixed city 240 miles north of Baghdad, after being driven from Anbar when leaders there switched allegiance last year. Diyala province until recently was held by al Qaeda. And Kirkuk has been gripped by ethnic strife linked to the struggle for control of its oil.

Today just 13 percent in Mosul rate their local security positively, as do only 21 percent in Diyala and 34 percent in Kirkuk, compared with 67 percent in the rest of Iraq. A remarkable 70 percent in Diyala and 52 percent in Mosul say security there in fact has gotten worse in the last six months, compared with 12 percent elsewhere. Fifty-two percent in Kirkuk, 36 percent in Mosul and 38 percent in Diyala report a car bomb or suicide attack in their area in the past six months – compared with 25 percent elsewhere.

People in all three locales are more likely than other Iraqis to cite the inability to live where they wish without persecution, and Mosul is far more glum economically; just 28 percent there rate their economic situation positively, compared with 57 percent in Iraq overall. Residents in these three locales are more negative on the country's progress and prospects, and less apt to expect better lives for their children.

Even in Mosul, Diyala and Kirkuk, conditions across many measures have improved compared to six months ago. But the situation there remains deeply troubled – a stark reminder of challenges still facing Iraq.

METHODOLOGY – This poll for ABC News, the BBC, ARD and NHK was conducted Feb. 12-20, 2008, through in-person interviews with a random national sample of 2,228 Iraqi adults, including oversamples in Anbar province, Basra city, Mosul, Kirkuk and the Sadr City section of Baghdad. The results have a 2.5-point error margin. Field work by D3 Systems of Vienna, Va., and KA Research Ltd. of Istanbul.

Click here for PDF with charts and full questionnaire.

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