Tomorrow's deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities and towns is likely to be met there with a combination of delight – and apprehension.
Most Iraqis never have appreciated the presence of U.S. troops on their soil; not once in six national polls since 2004 has a majority approved of the invasion, and never have more than 36 percent approved of the way coalition forces have carried out their work.
No wonder then that in our last poll there, in February, 81 percent of Iraqis endorsed the schedule to remove all U.S. forces from their country by 2011 (35 percent) or said it should be accomplished more quickly than that – a plurality, 46 percent. (Americans won’t mind either; seven in 10 likewise have supported the Obama administration’s withdrawal plans.)
But this doesn’t mean the withdrawal is being greeted without some trepidation in Iraq. Four in 10 think Iraq’s own forces are unready to take up security on their own – including more than half of Kurds and a larger majority of Sunni Arabs, 61 percent. Shiites, whose leaders chiefly control the security apparatus, are far more confident in it.
Four in 10 Iraqis – in this case Shiites and Sunnis equally, rising to half of Kurds – also express at least some concern that security will worsen after U.S. forces are gone. That concern draws resonance from the devastating violence Iraq has seen; in March 2007 more than half its citizens reported an immediate relative or close friend injured or killed.
But our last two polls have found broad improvements in security and other living conditions following the surge of U.S. forces, the participation of Sunni Arab leaders in security efforts – and, simultaneously, the increased separation of Sunni and Shiite populations. Many more feel safe in their own neighborhoods; sharply fewer call security the chief problem in their lives or in the life of their country.
Tomorrow’s deadline for the departure of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities is a milestone made possible by the changes our surveys there have tracked so clearly. But violence, even if vastly abated, continues, with more than 250 reported dead in bombings in just the last 10 days. And other challenges are serious as well. Basic services remain in short supply: Six in 10 say they lack access to good medical care, clean water and electricity. Fifty-six percent say they can’t live where they wish without persecution.
While confidence among Sunni Arabs is greatly improved, they remain far less confident personally and skeptical politically. The sustainability of Sunni/Shiite segregation, tension in Kurdish-Arab relations, political corruption and gridlock all loom large.
Tomorrow’s a national holiday in Iraq, justifiably celebrating its latest step toward normalcy. But while U.S. forces will be out of its cities, it’s a country that, for all its advances, is not yet out of the woods.