2005 Poll: Broad Optimism in Iraq, But Also Deep Divisions Among Groups

ByABC News
February 4, 2009, 2:01 PM

Dec. 12, 2005 — -- Surprising levels of optimism prevail in Iraq with living conditions improved, security more a national worry than a local one, and expectations for the future high. But views of the country's situation overall are far less positive, and there are vast differences in views among Iraqi groups -- a study in contrasts between increasingly disaffected Sunni areas and vastly more positive Shiite and Kurdish provinces.

An ABC News poll in Iraq, conducted with Time magazine and other media partners, includes some remarkable results: Despite the daily violence there, most living conditions are rated positively, seven in 10 Iraqis say their own lives are going well, and nearly two-thirds expect things to improve in the year ahead.

Surprisingly, given the insurgents' attacks on Iraqi civilians, more than six in 10 Iraqis feel very safe in their own neighborhoods, up sharply from just 40 percent in a poll in June 2004. And 61 percent say local security is good -- up from 49 percent in the first ABC News poll in Iraq in February 2004.

Nonetheless, nationally, security is seen as the most pressing problem by far; 57 percent identify it as the country's top priority. Economic improvements are helping the public mood.

Average household incomes have soared by 60 percent in the last 20 months (to $263 a month), 70 percent of Iraqis rate their own economic situation positively, and consumer goods are sweeping the country. In early 2004, 6 percent of Iraqi households had cell phones; now it's 62 percent. Ownership of satellite dishes has nearly tripled, and many more families now own air conditioners (58 percent, up from 44 percent), cars, washing machines and kitchen appliances.

There are positive political signs as well. Three-quarters of Iraqis express confidence in the national elections being held this week, 70 percent approve of the new constitution, and 70 percent -- including most people in Sunni and Shiite areas alike -- want Iraq to remain a unified country.

Interest in politics has soared.

Preference for a democratic political structure has advanced, to 57 percent of Iraqis, while support for an Islamic state has lost ground, to 14 percent (the rest, 26 percent, chiefly in Sunni Arab areas, favor a "single strong leader.")

Whatever the current problems, 69 percent of Iraqis expect things for the country overall to improve in the next year -- a remarkable level of optimism in light of the continuing violence there. However, in a sign of the many challenges ahead, this optimism is far lower in Sunni Arab-dominated provinces, where just 35 percent are optimistic about the country's future.

Other views, moreover, are more negative: Fewer than half, 46 percent, say the country is better off now than it was before the war. And half of Iraqis now say it was wrong for U.S.-led forces to invade in spring 2003, up from 39 percent in 2004.

The number of Iraqis who say things are going well in their country overall is just 44 percent, far fewer than the 71 percent who say their own lives are going well. Fifty-two percent instead say the country is doing badly.

There's other evidence of the United States' increasing unpopularity: Two-thirds now oppose the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, 14 points higher than in February 2004. Nearly six in 10 disapprove of how the United States has operated in Iraq since the war, and most of them disapprove strongly. And nearly half of Iraqis would like to see U.S. forces leave soon.

Specifically, 26 percent of Iraqis say U.S. and other coalition forces should "leave now" and another 19 percent say they should go after the government chosen in this week's election takes office; that adds to 45 percent. Roughly the other half says coalition forces should remain until security is restored (31 percent), until Iraqi security forces can operate independently (16 percent), or longer (5 percent).

This survey was sponsored by ABC News with partners Time, the BBC, the Japanese network NHK and the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, with fieldwork by Oxford Research International. It consists of in-person interviews with a random national sample of 1,711 Iraqis from early October through mid-November.

There were limitations on questions in the survey because of security concerns; given the sectarian violence, Iraqis were not asked their religious doctrine, Sunni or Shiite. Instead this analysis looks at Sunni-dominated, Shia-dominated, mixed and Kurdish regions, using previous data to categorize provinces.

Sunni Arabs, the favored group under Saddam Hussein, lost their status with his overthrow and clearly resent it. In contrast Shiites, the larger group, are embracing their newfound political clout despite the terrorism that largely has targeted them. Kurds in the North (who are Sunnis, but attitudinally far different from Sunni Arabs), the strongest supporters of the United States by far, are the most positive Iraqi group, by dint of the greater autonomy they've long sought.

People in mixed areas of the country, notably the population center, Baghdad, tend to view conditions much more favorably than those in Sunni Arab areas, and generally more in line with views in the mainly Shiite South.

Majorities in Shiite and Sunni Arab areas do share some views, such as discontent with the presence of U.S. forces and -- perhaps crucially for Iraq's future -- a desire to keep the country unified. But the degree differs sharply -- for example, 88 percent of those in Sunni areas want a unified Iraq, compared with 56 percent in Shiite provinces. And on other matters, including fundamental political issues, Sunni/Shiite area views more directly conflict.

Confidence in this week's elections is far lower in Sunni Arab areas -- 48 percent, compared with more than 80 percent in other groups -- but, given Sunnis' broad disaffection, that could be worse. More threatening is that just 27 percent in Sunni areas approve of the constitution, compared to more than eight in 10 Iraqis in the rest of the country, Shiite, Kurdish and mixed areas alike.

Such gaps between these groups seem to represent Iraq's greatest challenge. On issue after issue, from personal satisfaction to security to political views, people in Sunni areas -- about one in four Iraqis -- express vastly more negative views than their Shiite- or Kurdish-area counterparts.

Just 11 percent of people in predominantly Sunni-Arab provinces, for example, feel safe in their own neighborhoods, compared with eight in 10 Iraqis in other areas. People in mainly Sunni-Arab areas are far less confident in the Iraqi government, army or police. They're half as likely as those in mainly Shiite provinces to say their own lives are going well and half as likely to expect things to improve in the next year. While 53 percent of people in predominantly Shiite areas say the country as a whole is doing well, a mere 9 percent of those in mostly Sunni provinces agree.

Rather than moving toward healing, the gaps between views in Sunni areas versus the rest of Iraq have widened sharply since early 2004, with attitudes worsening in Sunni areas while improving elsewhere. While Iraqis in Shiite, mixed and Kurdish provinces all rate the security situation, their job opportunities, and their family's protection from crime more positively than they did 20 months ago, those in Sunni provinces have grown decidedly more negative.

Similarly, while Iraqis' positive ratings of their lives overall look stable (71 percent today versus 70 percent in 2004), beneath those overall numbers is a 21-point improvement in Shiite areas -- and a 26-point decline in the outlook in Sunni provinces.

The Sunni/Shiite gap has also grown on measures of confidence in key Iraqi institutions. While people in mainly Shiite provinces are 22 points more likely to have faith in the Iraqi army than they were in 2004, in mainly Sunni areas confidence has fallen by 13 points; a 15-point gap has now grown to 50. The divide in views of police similarly has increased by 23 points.

As noted, both Sunni and Shiite communities oppose the presence of U.S. and coalition forces, but views on the subject in Shiite areas have held steady over the past year and a half, while support for coalition forces in Sunni areas has gone from minimal, 24 percent, to near zero, 4 percent.

Attitudes in Anbar -- a Sunni Arab-dominated province that's been a center of anti-coalition sentiment -- are even more extreme than views in other predominately Sunni areas. (Anbar includes Fallujah and the provincial capital, Ramadi.)

Already lower than in non-Sunni areas, confidence in national institutions craters in Anbar: Only three in 10 of those in Anbar have confidence in the police, a scant one in 10 expresses confidence in the new Iraqi army and a mere 4 percent approve of the Iraqi government's performance.

The United States fairs even more poorly in Anbar, where a solitary 1 percent say the U.S.-led invasion was a good thing for Iraq, and not a single respondent expresses confidence in the U.S. and U.K. occupation forces.

While last year's survey identified strong anti-American sentiment in Anbar, the unsettled security situation may help drive the low ratings of Iraqi institutions (only religious leaders are more highly rated in Anbar than elsewhere). Nearly half in Anbar call instability their biggest problem -- 17 points more than in other, already on-edge, Sunni areas -- and just 13 percent say their local security situation is good. Only 28 percent expect security to improve.

The political outlook, however, could improve. Nearly six in 10 Anbar residents have confidence that the elections will lead to a stable government. They're also more likely than other Sunnis to be interested in politics and to talk politics with others (more than eight in 10 in Anbar say they do both). But only two in 10 Anbar residents approve of the newly minted constitution.

Across Iraq, most local conditions are rated positively -- and more so than in early 2004. This survey finds 10- to 13-point gains in ratings of local crime protection, security and medical care, as well as in the still-problematic areas of electric supply and jobs. (Even including the substantial number of self-employed workers, Iraqis are only about half as likely as Americans to hold jobs.)

Expectations for improvement in local conditions are all high -- in the mid-70s -- and similar to their levels in early '04.

Still, there clearly is room for improvement in local conditions. Many of the ratings are predominantly "good" rather than "very good" (freedom of speech, after the repression of the Saddam years, is one notable exception; schools are another.) On as basic an element as the supply of clean water, for example, just 19 percent say theirs is very good, and on electrical supply it's just 11 percent.

While most of these ratings have improved since February 2004, fewer Iraqis now say these conditions are better than they were before the war. That could reflect both dimmer recollection and an unwillingness to give the war credit for positive change. The measure above, rating conditions without relying on recollection, is the more reliable one.

Electricity, taken for granted in the United States, is a continued sore point. Fifty-four percent say it's bad in their area, although that's down from 64 percent last year. More than half of Iraqis (again 54 percent) have electricity for no more than eight hours a day. Just 5 percent have it around the clock.

Ironically for an oil-rich nation, fuel supply also is a persistent problem. Among Iraqis who drive, seven in 10 say they encounter fuel lines. Just under half say they say they wait for hours; a quarter, for days.

Two-thirds of Iraqis also report waiting lines for another necessity, heating or cooking fuel. Four in 10 say they wait for hours; just under three in 10, for days.

And despite the billions spent, reconstruction does not win broad accolades. Just 18 percent of Iraqis say postwar reconstruction efforts in their area have been "very effective." Instead 52 percent say such efforts have been ineffective or, while needed, have not occurred at all.

Few -- just 6 percent -- credit the United States with the main role in reconstruction. More say it's the Iraqi people (12 percent) or the Iraqi government (9 percent), but 37 percent say it's "no one."

As noted, 63 percent feel very safe in their own neighborhood, up sharply from an Oxford poll in June 2004. But again Sunni- and Shia-area differences are profound. Eighty percent of people in Shiite areas feel safe in their neighborhood; that dives to 11 percent in predominantly Sunni provinces.

With 57 percent giving it top national priority, security dwarfs other concerns. (Next, cited by 10 percent, is getting the United States out of Iraq; 9 percent say it's rebuilding infrastructure, with other options in lower single digits.) In another example of the majority's positive outlook, 70 percent think security nationally will improve in the next year. But that falls to 40 percent in Sunni areas (and 28 percent in Anbar).

Iraqis were asked in this survey what makes them feel unsafe, or if, instead, they feel safe. In a notable improvement, 51 percent say they feel safe -- nearly double what it was in June 2004.

Among the half of Iraqis who do feel unsafe, the main reason given, by far, is terrorism. And many in this "unsafe" group "very often" take a range of steps: avoiding U.S. forces (67 percent), avoiding checkpoints (52 percent), avoiding police and government buildings (47 percent), and being careful what they say (43 percent).

Top security-related priorities for the future are fighting ordinary crime and stopping attacks on civilians and the Iraqi police or army. Stopping attacks on coalition forces comes in much lower.

Despite the growing gap between Sunni and Shiite provinces, confidence in some institutions has risen overall, particularly confidence in the Iraqi Army, up from 39 percent in November 2003 to 67 percent now; and in the police, up from 45 percent to 68 percent (but stable since last year).

As noted, 76 percent of Iraqis express confidence that this week's elections will produce a stable government, although fewer, 42 percent, are very confident of it. Interest in politics has soared -- 39 percent in an Oxford survey in November 2003, 54 percent in February 2004 and 69 percent now. But there's been an 11-point dip since June 2004 in people talking about politics, in what may reflect increased caution in light of the Iraqi insurgency.

The election itself looks wide open, at least from the perspective of these October-to-November interviews. Thirty-seven percent of Iraqis said they hadn't decided which party to support (but were planning to vote). Those with a preference were scattered among a wide range of political parties.

Support for former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Wifaq National Movement, or Iraqi National Accord Movement, was 9 percent; the Kurdish PUK, 9 percent; the Shiite-affiliated Islamic al-Dawa Party, 8 percent. Parties people would "never vote for" include the now-outlawed al-Baath (9 percent) and al-Dawa (7 percent).

National leaders with the greatest trust include the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari (15 percent), Allawi (15 percent) and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani (10 percent), with others in single digits. But al-Jaffari also comes up as No. 1 on the don't-trust at-all list, at 12 percent. Such is politics.

As in so many of these issues, a closer look at views on Iraq's future system of government may give pause to policy makers there (and in the United States as well).

Overall, as noted, 57 percent of Iraqis prefer democracy to either strongman rule or an Islamic state. But preference for democracy falls under 50 percent among people in Shiite areas (45 percent) and Sunni areas (38 percent) alike. Democracy is boosted to a majority by its support in Kurdish provinces and in mixed Shiite/Sunni areas, chiefly the capital, Baghdad.

At the same time, that result measures support for democracy "now," which for some Iraqis may be constrained by concern about the country's current situation. When Iraqis instead are asked which of these systems they prefer not now, but in five years' time, support for democracy is a bit higher -- 64 percent -- mainly at the expense of support for a strong leader. And in this formulation it reaches a majority in all groups, albeit still with some substantial differences.

Finally, this survey asked about women's rights in Iraq, and found a broad range of responses: On one hand 99 percent of Iraqis support women voting or working as medical doctors; on the other fewer than half say a woman should be able to serve as president; and fewer still, 38 percent, say women should be eligible to serve as an elected village or town chief, known as a mukhtar.

These views, surprisingly in the less-tolerant cases, are almost identical among men and women. The differences instead, as in so much in Iraq, appear in the regions. In Kurdish areas, 76 percent say a woman should be able to be elected as mukhtar. In Shiite-dominated areas it's 56 percent. But that falls to 32 percent in mixed Shiite-Sunni areas, and bottoms out at just 6 percent in mainly Sunni provinces.

The range is similar for other offices. Seventy-one percent of Kurds say a woman should be able to serve as president; in Sunni areas this dives to 21 percent. And it goes lower: In Anbar province, the conservative center of Sunni discontent, just 8 percent would accept a woman as president of Iraq.

This poll was conducted for ABC News, Time magazine, the BBC, NHK and Der Spiegel by Oxford Research International. Interviews were conducted Oct. 8 to Nov. 22, 2005, in person, in Arabic and Kurdish, among a random national sample of 1,711 Iraqis age 15 and up. The results have a 2.5-point error margin. Details of the survey methodology are available upon request.

This analysis examines regions where different groups dominate, based primarily on data from the February 2004 Iraq poll. Predominantly Shiite Arab provinces were identified as Basra, Kerbala, Missan, Najaf, Qadissiyah and Wassit, all in the South. Predominantly Sunni Arab provinces are Anbar, Diyala, Ninewa and Salah Al-Din. Mixed provinces are Babil, Baghdad and Tameem, and predominantly Kurdish provinces in the North are Dokuhk, Erbil and Suleymaniya. The two remaining provinces, Muthanna and Thi-Qar, both in the mainly Shiite South, were not selected in the random-sampling process in this survey.