Iraq: Notes From the Field

March 17, 2008 — -- There were checkpoints, police stops and at least one shootout. But compared to last year's experience polling there, Iraq has quieted down considerably.

That's the message from interviewers who conducted the latest national poll in Iraq for ABC News, the BBC, ARD German TV and NHK. Field notes accompanying previous polls, particularly last March, described bombings, armed assaults and heavy fighting. The latest noted far less violence, and more concerns with the necessities of daily life.

"There are no services in the town, no electricity. The people of the town were saying that the government forgets about them for a long time," reported one interviewer in Irbil province. "The road of the town to the city was so bad, it is very hard to reach the city. People of the town were saying if this situation continues, they will abandon the town and move to other cities."

In neighboring Ninevah, "We noticed that people were very reactive when we ask questions about the government and services. Some respondents were very angry about not getting services, even one of them left the room," another interviewer said. "We encountered armed militias walking openly in residential areas which made us nervous, but we were able to do our jobs and leave without incident."

There was some trouble. At a village in southern Basra province, "fighting started between some armed men and Iraqi police," an interviewer reported. "We needed to stop our random walk, waited for a few hours, but then it passed and we could continue." Also in Basra, a supervisor said, "There was intense fighting in some districts… between insurgents and Iraqi army, which made it very hard to complete questionnaires."

Checkpoints were the most common impediment. In Karbala, "We were stopped frequently by Iraqi police and Iraqi army checking all vehicles. We encountered lots of checkpoints, more than usual." In Ninevah, "We encountered many Iraqi police checkpoints that I had not seen before." In Salahuddin, "The roads... were closed most of the time by Al-Sahawa (Awakening Council) forces in all areas."

"We struggled to reach our designated sampling points," this interviewer said. "Especially in Samarra city, there were lots of Iraqi police and security forces spread everywhere. There were many checkpoints, searching every car going in and out."

Trained interviewers, all Iraqi citizens, were sent to a total of 461 randomly selected starting points across the country. From each they followed a random route procedure to select households, then randomly selected individuals within households to participate in the survey. Just five interviews were conducted from each sampling point, allowing for very broad geographical coverage of the country.

There were some causes for alarm. In Irbil, "While we were applying random household selection rules, someone called police. They took us to the police station and wanted us to explain our work." It ended well: "The officer in the station accepted our explanations and papers."

In central Babil, a supervisor related, "We did not experience any problems in field work. Only Iraqi army suddenly blocked the road while we were driving back to our office. We stayed there 'til night time, our families were worried and sent us a lot of text messages, but the situation passed safely."

Some interviewers cleared their work in advance with local officials. In Maysan, "We needed to get permission from the village chief to interview with people. First he was suspicious about us, but when we described our company, our job, he gave us permission. After his permission people were comfortable with us."

Some field workers noted improving local conditions. In the al-Menaa area of Basra, "there was reconstruction going on in the area, construction of office buildings, and paving of roads, building of schools etc. People were very warm to us, easily joined to our work," an interviewer reported.

In Dhi Qar, just to the north, said another, "We saw construction work going on in this area. People of the region were quite happy with that, because except for the main street of the region, everywhere was covered with ruins and rubble and people are looking for some reconstruction works."

In Karbala, the outlook was brighter still: "There is construction going on in many of the districts we visited," a supervisor reported. "There were constructions of roads, sewage system, even some gardens and car parks."

But poor conditions were more the norm. In a remote Basra area, an interviewer said, "The village is in need of services and there is no clean drinking water." In south-central Wasit, "The people of the region complained about lack of electricity and problems with drinking water." In Irbil, "The condition is very bad in this region; there are no services, no electricity, fuel, pavement of roads."

At another locale in Irbil, "We noticed that security conditions are bad here. People of the region were cold to us. There is a fuel crisis here and people are buying fuel from the black market which is very expensive." In Muthanna: "The people of the town were suffering from lack of drinking water, bad roads, piles of garbage and stinking sewage."

In Sulaimaniyah, "There are reconstruction projects going on, but there is no electricity and fuel prices are very high, so people complained about the cost of generators and cooking and all things really. The region was very cold and lack of electricity was making life harder."

And in Maysan, an interviewer said, "The village is usually complaining about services. Mostly they complained about drinking water, electricity, and problems with getting necessary tools for their agricultural lands."

The complaints are serious ones, involving the basics of daily life, and they underscore some of the challenges facing Iraq. But in the interviewers' experiences – as in the survey results themselves – Iraq's greatest challenge, security, has improved.