Security Gains Reverse Iraq's Spiral
Though Serious Problems Remain

2008 ABC News/BBC/NHK/ARD National Survey of Iraq

ByABC News
February 4, 2009, 1:58 PM

March 17, 2008 — -- 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.

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 halfthink 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.)