Dramatic Advances Sweep Iraq, Boosting Support for Democracy

ABC News/BBC/NHK National Survey of Iraq shows stunning strides.

March 16, 2009 — -- Dramatic advances in public attitudes are sweeping Iraq, with declining violence, rising economic well-being and improved services lifting optimism, fueling confidence in public institutions and bolstering support for democracy.

The gains in the latest ABC News/BBC/NHK poll represent a stunning reversal of the spiral of despair caused by Iraq's sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. The sweeping rebound, extending initial improvements first seen a year ago, marks no less than the opportunity for a new future for Iraq and its people.

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Click here for charts on the results.

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While deep difficulties remain, the advances are remarkable. Eighty-four percent of Iraqis now rate security in their own area positively, nearly double its August 2007 level. Seventy-eight percent say their protection from crime is good, more than double its low. Three-quarters say they can go where they want safely – triple what it's been.

Few credit the United States, still widely unpopular given the post-invasion violence, and eight in 10 favor its withdrawal on schedule by 2011 – or sooner. But at the same time a new high, 64 percent of Iraqis, now call democracy their preferred form of government.

Remaining challenges are serious. Many views have not recovered to their pre-2006 levels. Violence continues, even if much abated. Basic services such as medical care and clean water, though better, are still in short supply. Even with their confidence vastly improved, Sunni Arabs remain far more vulnerable personally and skeptical politically. Sunni/Shiite segregation has increased sharply. Kurdish-Arab relations are tense. And issues from corruption to suspected vote fraud and political gridlock cloud the horizon.

Still, the number of Iraqis who call security the single biggest problem in their own lives has dropped from 48 percent in March 2007 to 20 percent now. Two years ago 56 percent called it the single biggest problem for the country as a whole; that's down to 35 percent now, including a 15-point drop in the last year alone. Fifty-nine percent now feel "very" safe in their communities, up 22 points from last year and more than double its lowest. Recent local fighting among sectarian forces is reported by 6 percent, compared with 22 percent a year ago.

Optimism and confidence have followed. Sixty-five percent of Iraqis say things are going well in their own lives, up from 39 percent in 2007 (albeit still a bit below its 2005 peak). Fifty-eight percent say things are going well for Iraq – a new high, up from only 22 percent in 2007. Expectations for the year ahead, at the national and personal levels, also have soared, after crashing in 2007. And the sharpest advances have come among Sunni Arabs, the favored group under Saddam Hussein, deeply alienated by his overthrow, now re-engaging in Iraq's national life.

Confidence in the national government, local governments, the army and police all are at new highs. And the growth in support for democracy, bolstered by successful provincial elections in January, is critical – a 21-point gain from March 2007 to a new high in polls since 2004. As Sunni Arabs have stepped back from their preference for strongman rule, so have many Shiites dropped their preference for an Islamic state.

Among the many other telling results in this poll: A majority of Iraqis, 57 percent, now say it's time for the millions who fled the country during the height of its violence to return to Iraq. A year ago fewer than half, 45 percent, held that view.

This survey, based on random, in-person interviews with 2,228 Iraqi adults across the country, is the sixth in Iraq since 2004 sponsored by ABC News and media partners. Together their tracking of Iraqis' attitudes over time tells a story of initial optimism, crushed hopes in waves of violence, nascent improvement and now a robust recovery. They mark a notably different path from Afghanistan, where ABC's fourth national poll in January found sharp declines in public attitudes, amidst broad strife and struggling development.

AND THE U.S. – For all the gains in Iraq, the toll of the invasion and ensuing years of violence continues to weigh heavily on Iraqis' views of the United States. Most, 56 percent, say it was wrong for the United States and its coalition allies to invade six years ago this week. Never in these polls has a majority of Iraqis supported the U.S.-led war.

Other views of the U.S. presence remain weak as well. Just 27 percent are confident in U.S. forces (albeit nearly double its low). Just 30 percent say U.S. and coalition forces have done a good job carrying out their responsibilities in Iraq. Still fewer, 18 percent, have a positive opinion of the United States overall. Barely over a third think the election of Barack Obama will help their country.

The improvements in Iraq have followed the surge of U.S. forces there in 2007 and the successful U.S.-led efforts to bring Sunni groups into security arrangements. But what that apparently has not done is to mitigate Iraqis' anger at the widespread violence that came before. In March 2007, one in six Iraqis said someone in their own household had been hurt or killed; more than half reported an immediate relative or close friend harmed.

Today, the transfer of power is a work in progress; 53 percent of Iraqis think the United States still "controls things in our country." Nonetheless 59 percent think Iraqi forces are ready now to take up security without U.S. and other coalition forces present, and most of the rest think they'll become ready in the next year or two.

Thus 81 percent either support the current timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces by 2011 (35 percent) – or say it should be speeded up (a plurality, 46 percent).

Some doubts and sectarian divisions underlie these views. Confidence that Iraqi forces are now capable of taking up security soars among Shiite Arabs, whose leaders control most of the security apparatus. But from 75 percent among Shiites this confidence drops to 45 percent among Kurds (long protected by the United States) and 38 percent among Sunni Arabs (still fearful of Shiite domination).

Also, a substantial number of Iraqis, 42 percent, are concerned that security may in fact worsen after U.S. forces leave. But few are "very" concerned. Most Iraqis appear eager to move ahead under their own steam.

COMMERCE, CONFIDENCE and CONCILIATION – For Iraq itself, where security has led, other conditions have improved. Sixty percent of Iraqis now rate their personal finances positively, up from a low of 36 percent in March 2007; six in 10 can obtain basic household goods, steady from last year and well up from the dark days of 2007. While jobs, medical care and clean water remain problematic, the availability of electricity – a perennial problem – and, especially, of fuel supplies, has soared.

Iraqi elections, ethnic relations and Sunni improvements

Critically, given past violence, Sunni-Shiite tensions have eased. Sixty-seven percent say the participation of Sunnis in the Jan. 31 provincial elections was a positive factor (most Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds alike say so). Nearly six in 10 rate relations between Sunnis and Shiites positively, up from 48 percent a year ago. And 79 percent expect reconciliation and cooperation between them in the future.

There is, however, greater separation between these groups, raising the question of the true level of rapprochement. Last year 27 percent of Iraqis lived in completely Shiite neighborhoods, 27 percent in completely Sunni neighborhoods; now it's 36 percent apiece – more than seven in 10 now living apart. And nearly six in 10 Iraqis say they only have friends of the same doctrine as their own, up 8 points. The meaning of that increased separation is a profound one for Iraq's future.

There are tensions in Kurdish-Arab relations, too. Just 44 percent of Iraqis rate these relations positively, dropping to 22 percent of Sunnis. A tepid 53 percent of Iraqis expect reconciliation between Kurds and Arabs, and 59 percent expect the Kurdish provinces to try formally to separate from Iraq – something nearly nine in 10 non-Kurds oppose, two-thirds of them, "strongly."

Nonetheless, along with personal and national optimism, trust in national institutions has jumped. As noted, confidence in the Iraqi army and police are at new highs, 73 and 74 percent respectively, including majorities of Sunni Arabs for the first time (as well as most Kurds and Shiites alike). Sixty-seven percent of Iraqis think the country's security forces are loyal to the nation, not to individual factions; Shiites especially say so, but more than half of Sunni Arabs and Kurds agree.

While views on the fairness of the provincial elections in January are mixed, with sharp sectarian differences, they do seem to have helped boost confidence. The number of Iraqis who rate their local government positively – 39 percent in August 2007 – has jumped to 59 percent now, a new high. That's up 16 points among Shiites, to 63 percent. But most notable is the gain among Sunnis, who participated in these elections after previous boycotts. In March 2007 just 9 percent of Sunnis rated their local government positively. Last year it was 23 percent. Today, 51 percent.

Confidence in the national government likewise is at a new high, 61 percent, up 22 points from its August 2007 low. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a 55 percent approval rating, up 15 points from last year – including a 23-point gain among Sunnis, albeit again from a very low base; in the past they've been almost unanimously critical of the Shiite-dominated Maliki government.

In a less positive sign for Maliki, four in 10 Iraqis – across sectarian lines – think he's concentrating too much power in his office; even 42 percent of Shiites say so.

However, more fundamentally, 70 percent of Iraqis support a unified Iraq with its central government in Baghdad, up 12 points from its low in March 2007. Kurds, though, are more apt to favor either a regional federation or outright separation.

SUNNIS: A SEA CHANGE – Differences on Maliki are instructive in terms of the fault lines in Iraqi politics. He now enjoys a 70 percent approval rating among Shiites, up 18 points from last year. His approval from Kurds, 51 percent, is down by 17 points – indicating the rising wariness in that group, in part over oil wealth. And while Maliki's approval from Sunnis is way up, that's just to 31 percent, from a mere 8 percent last year.

In another measure, 73 percent of Shiites and 63 percent of Kurds are confident in the national government; among Sunni Arabs this drops to 39 percent. But that's up among Sunnis from just 10 percent a year ago and 4 percent in August 2007.

Personal views add to the story. There's been an astonishing advance in the number of Shiites who feel "very safe" in their own community – from 38 percent a year ago to 67 percent now. Among Kurds, whose three northern provinces escaped most of the country's recent violence, feelings of safety have been high and are now even higher, 85 percent. Sunni Arabs are another story: Even today just 33 percent feel very safe. But that's up from 13 percent last year and a mere 3 percent in March 2007.

Other metrics are similar. Seven in 10 Shiites and Kurds alike say things are going well in their own lives; that drops to 49 percent of Sunnis – far lower, but at the same time up from a dismal 7 percent in 2007. And among Iraqis who report security gains in the last six months, Sunnis are far less likely than Shiites or Kurds to be confident they'll continue in the future.

Sunnis also are much less likely than Shiites to say they have access to medical care, clean water or electricity; they're 21 points less apt than Shiites to say the national government is providing services in their area (41 percent vs. 62 percent) – elements that could encourage resentment in the future.

In a result related to Sunni/Shiite separation, just 43 percent of Iraqis feel free to live where they want without persecution. But that is up from a low of 23 percent in 2007, especially among Sunnis. In August 2007 a mere 2 percent of Sunnis felt they could live where they chose without persecution; a year ago, 19 percent; today, 31 percent.

Indeed advances in confidence among Sunnis are some of the most striking changes in this poll – including a 30-point gain just since last year in the number of Sunnis who say things are going well for the country as a whole, and likewise a 29-point advance in expectations among Sunnis that things will get better for Iraq in the year ahead.

Equally remarkable is the rise in confidence among Sunnis in the Iraqi army – up from a low of 25 percent in March 2007 to 55 percent today – and even more so, in the Iraqi police. In March 2007 just 24 percent of Sunnis were confident in the police; by last year, 40 percent – and today, 67 percent, a key change reflecting greater Sunni participation in these forces.

Still, assessing the loyalty of security forces overall, Sunnis and Kurds alike are more apt than Shiites to express some skepticism. Seventy-nine percent of Shiites think these forces are loyal to the country as a whole rather than to individual factions; far fewer Sunnis and Kurds, 54 percent, share that view. Among those who do see factional loyalties, the one most often mentioned is the Shiite-led Badr organization and its leaders.

Shiites account for 51 percent of Iraq's population in this poll, Sunni Arabs 29 percent, Kurds 16 percent – essentially steady across the four latest ABC News-sponsored polls in Iraq. See separate methodology statement for details.

Democracy in Iraq, independence for Kurdistan and violence

GOVERNANCE – Basic views on governance also mark the sea change in Sunni views: In March 2007 58 percent of Sunnis said the country needed a "strong leader – a government headed by one man for life" (presumably a throwback to their one-time protector, Saddam), while just 38 percent preferred a democracy. Today that's more than flipped: Sixty-five percent of Sunnis want a democracy; just 20 percent, a strong leader.

Critically, there's been a complementary change among Shiites – in their case a drop in preference for an Islamic state from 40 percent in 2007 to 26 percent now, and a concomitant 21-point rise in favor of democracy. Kurds, for their part, have been and remain broadly pro-democracy.

Sunni support for democracy, though, is tentative. Nearly seven in 10 Kurds and nearly eight in 10 Shiites say they're "confident" that a system of freely electing leaders can work successfully in Iraq; many fewer Sunnis, 45 percent, are ready to say so.

Some concerns over governance reflect frustration with the current legislative system. Iraqis divide about evenly on whether members of the Council of Representatives in Baghdad are willing to make necessary compromises on sharing the country's oil wealth and promoting reconciliation, with Sunnis especially skeptical. And more Iraqis, 61 percent overall, don't see progress on official corruption.

Iraqis as a whole are more apt to say the provincial elections last month increased rather than decreased their confidence that democracy can work in Iraq, 43 percent vs. 18 percent. But that's a far more robust result among Shiites (54 vs. 12 percent) than among either Sunnis (36 vs. 20 percent), or, especially, Kurds (26 vs. 32 percent).

Indeed, there's skepticism among non-Shiites that the elections in fact were free and fair, with an honest vote count. While 62 percent of Shiites think so, that dives to 32 percent of Kurds and 30 percent of Sunnis. Iraq's democracy remains a fragile thing.

KURDS – For Kurds, pinned as ever in a difficult geopolitical situation, there are some hotspots. One focus is oil-rich Kirkuk, center of a dispute on whether it should or should not become part of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Nearly all Kurds (93 percent) say yes; nearly all Sunni and Shiite Arabs say no.

That dispute boils into the broader issue of whether the Kurdish areas are receiving (or should receive) a fair share of Iraq's oil revenue. Kurds have grown more sour on the subject: A year ago 60 percent thought the Iraqi legislature was willing to make compromises on oil wealth; today many fewer Kurds, 44 percent, still think so. It's this kind of view that's contributed to the 17-point drop in approval for Maliki among Kurds.

Part of the division may be inescapable; Kurds, brutally repressed under Saddam, never have fully embraced Iraqi nationalism. While 91 percent of Sunni Arabs and 74 percent of Shiites favor a unified Iraq with a central government in Baghdad, that plummets to 18 percent of Kurds. (It was even lower during the strife.) Kurds instead divide evenly between a federated system and outright independence, with 39 percent support for each.

That's actually a 13-point drop in preference for independence among Kurds themselves in just the past year, perhaps informed by their geopolitical situation (especially, hostility with Turkey to the north). But while 39 percent of Kurds prefer independence, more, 56 percent, think it's at least somewhat likely the Kurdish provinces will try to obtain it. And if it happened, 86 percent of Kurds say they'd support it.

It's a recipe for trouble if Iraq's Kurds did seek independence. But given their location between Turkey and Iran, that option may be unattractive anyway. Indeed, Kurds are in fact more apt than Iraqi Arabs to expect ultimate reconciliation – 70 percent of Kurds expect Kurdish-Arab rapprochement, vs. about half of Shiites and Sunnis.

Kurds, largely separated from the Sunni-Shiite conflicts to their south, long have enjoyed better security and thus better local development than other Iraqis. For the most part that remains so – but Kurds' ratings of local conditions have trended down in this poll, while others' are steady or improved. Most notably, for the first time more Shiites than Kurds rate their families' economic situation positively, 66 percent vs. 58 percent, with a 10-point drop among Kurds from last year.

There's also been a 13-point drop in Kurds' positive ratings of their local government, and 9- to 11-point declines in their ratings of the availability of jobs, clean water, medical care and the quality of local schools. As conditions to the south have improved, the Kurdish north, in contrast, has experienced a bit of a setback.

VIOLENCE – The shift in views of security is vast. In addition to its overall positive ratings, 52 percent of Iraqis say security has improved in the country as a whole in the past six months; far fewer, 36 percent, said so a year ago, and fewer still, just 11 percent, in August 2007, six months into the U.S. surge. Just 8 percent say security's worsened lately; in August 2007, 61 percent said so.

But a reduction in violence is not its elimination, and it continues at troubling levels, as demonstrated by back-to-back suicide bombings this month that killed 28 and 33, respectively, in Baghdad. Sixteen percent of Iraqis – one in six – report car bombs or suicide attacks in their area in the past six months; 17 percent, kidnappings for ransom; 12 percent, political assassinations.

Those rise in particular areas and among particular groups. Three in 10 Sunnis report car bombs; so do 31 percent in the mixed city of Baghdad, home to a fifth of Iraq's population, and 22 percent in Sunni Anbar province. Three in 10 Sunnis also report kidnappings for ransom in the last six months, and this rises to 47 percent in Mosul, a northern city where remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq rebased after losing Anbar. Indeed 51 percent in Mosul still cite security as their biggest personal problem, compared with 20 percent across Iraq as a whole.

One way to assess violence is with an index showing how many Iraqis report any of a list of violent occurrences in their area. In August 2007, 71 percent reported at least one such incident in the previous six months. Last February it was about the same, 68 percent. Today fewer, 54 percent, report at least one such incident in the last six months. (And this does not take into account the frequency with which these incidents occur – even more sharply down, per Iraqi and U.S. government reports.)

Iraqi living conditions, foreign relations and the shoe thrower

LIVING CONDITIONS – Beyond violence, some living conditions, even if improved, are far from ideal. Just 40 percent of Iraqis say they have good access to medical care – up just 9 points from its worst, and far below its peak, 62 percent in pre-strife 2005. Access to medical care is reported by 59 percent of Kurds and 46 percent of Shiites, but that plummets to 19 percent among Sunni Arabs.

The availability of jobs is a complaint across groups; only about a third of Iraqis, 34 percent, rate this positively, almost unchanged in the last year (with a 10-point gain among Shiites, but an 11-point drop among Kurds). In another measure, more than twice as many say the availability of jobs has worsened in the last six months as say it's improved, 35 percent vs. 14 percent.

On other basics, just 38 percent rate their access to clean water positively, up 13 points from its low but still far below its best, 58 percent, in 2005. Just 38 percent also say they have a good supply of electricity – but that's up, remarkably, from just 12 percent last year. The number of Iraqis who say they have no electricity whatsoever from power lines (as opposed to generators) has been cut in half since March 2007. While six in 10 still lack reliable power, there have been real gains.

The advance in positive ratings of electric supply has occurred very disproportionately among Shiites, notably in Basra, but also in the provinces of Babil and Dhi Qar.

But the single biggest advance is in the supply of fuel for cooking and driving: A year ago just 19 percent rated theirs positively; today that's stormed to 68 percent. Factors could include lower prices on the export market and a more concerted government effort in domestic fuel distribution.

Among other conditions, local schools are well-rated (65 percent say theirs are good), as is local government (dramatically improved, as per above) and the availability of basic household goods, steady after improving sharply last year. Security, crime protection and freedom of movement, as noted, are vastly better, leading the way to broader improvements. And despite the shortage of jobs, 60 percent nonetheless rate their economic situation positively, steady from last year and well up from 2007, albeit 10 points below its peak in 2005.

Results throughout this poll show strong relationships between security, development and positive public attitudes. Where security is rated better, so are current conditions and expectations, both personally and nationally. And an index of development (see table on page 14 of PDF) shows how basic attitudes improve sharply along with ratings of local conditions. Security is essential, but development no less so.

Income also is playing a role in Iraqis' views, with consistently more positive ratings among those who are better-off financially, and particularly difficult conditions for very low-income Iraqis. For example, among the one in 10 who report monthly household incomes under 200,000 dinars (about $175), 84 percent say they lack access to clean water or medical care.

Income is playing more of a direct role in these ratings now than when security was a bigger concern; and indeed the economy for the first time has surpassed security as the top mention when Iraqis are asked the biggest problem in their personal lives.

FOREIGN RELATIONS – There's a trend for the better in Iraqis' views of many of their neighbors. This poll finds sharp declines in negative assessments of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey alike, led by much less criticism among Shiites.

The changes, like so many, are dramatic. In March 2007, 52 percent said Saudi Arabia was playing a negative role in Iraq; it's 32 percent now, including a huge 50-point drop among Shiites (Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni). Negative ratings of Syria have gone from 63 percent then to 38 percent now, with a 38-point drop among Shiites; and of Turkey, from 46 percent to 30 percent negative, including a 36-point drop among Shiites.

There's likewise been a 16-point drop in negative ratings of the United Kingdom, from 75 percent in March 2007 to 59 percent now, again led by Shiites. Russia's role is seen as negative by far fewer, 22 percent, but that's gained 9 points. And there's the United States: Sixty-four percent of Iraqis say it's playing a negative role in their country. But that's down from 77 percent in March 2007.

One thing that's not changed, though, is views of Iran, the mainly Shiite nation with which Iraq fought a ruinous war in the 1980s. Sixty-eight percent say Iran is playing a negative role in Iraq, unchanged since 2007.

SHOE GUY – Finally, that still-negative view of the United States is reinforced by attitudes about Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the journalist who threw a shoe at then-President Bush during his visit to Baghdad in December. Twenty-four percent see him as a criminal, for assaulting a visiting foreign head of state. But 62 percent of Iraqis view al-Zeidi as a hero, for expressing the views held by many Iraqi people.

METHODOLOGY – This poll for ABC News, the BBC and NHK was conducted Feb. 17-25, 2009, 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 methodological details and additional reports.

Click here for PDF of analysis with charts and full questionnaire.