Dramatic Advances Sweep Iraq, Boosting Support for Democracy

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

ByABC News
February 4, 2009, 10:12 AM

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.

Click here for PDF of analysis with charts and full questionnaire.
Click here for charts on the results.
Click here for photos from the field.

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.