Voices From Iraq 2007: Ebbing Hope in a Landscape of Loss

February 4, 2009, 2:18 PM

March 19, 2007 -- -- A new national survey paints a devastating portrait of life in Iraq: widespread violence, torn lives, displaced families, emotional damage, collapsing services, an ever starker sectarian chasm -- and a draining away of the underlying optimism that once prevailed.

Violence is the cause, its reach vast. Eighty percent of Iraqis report attacks nearby -- car bombs, snipers, kidnappings, armed forces fighting each other or abusing civilians. It's worst by far in the capital of Baghdad, but by no means confined there.

The personal toll is enormous. More than half of Iraqis, 53 percent, have a close friend or relative who's been hurt or killed in the current violence. One in six says someone in their own household has been harmed. Eighty-six percent worry about a loved one being hurt; two-thirds worry deeply. Huge numbers limit their daily activities to minimize risk. Seven in 10 report multiple signs of traumatic stress.

This is the third poll in Iraq sponsored by ABC News and media partners -- in this case USA Today, the BBC and ARD German TV -- and the changes are grim. In November 2005, 63 percent of Iraqis felt very safe in their neighborhoods. Today just 26 percent say the same. One in three doesn't feel safe at all. In Baghdad, home to a fifth of the country's population, that skyrockets: Eighty-four percent feel entirely unsafe.

IMPACT -- The impact is overwhelming: As violence has grown, measures of basic well-being have plummeted. In 2005, despite the difficulties in their country, 71 percent of Iraqis said their own lives were going well. Today that's been all but halved, to 39 percent. In 2005, two-thirds expected their lives to improve over the coming year. Now just 35 percent see better days ahead.

Again, the sharpest deterioration is in Baghdad, where the number of Iraqis who say their own lives are going well has dropped by 51 points. But it's also down by 26 points in the rest of Iraq. And even outside of Baghdad, just 32 percent of Iraqis feel "very safe" where they live, compared with 60 percent a year and a half ago.

In an equally dramatic reversal, majorities now give negative ratings to each of more than a dozen essential aspects of daily life -- jobs, schools, power and fuel supply, medical care and many more. In late 2005, for instance, 54 percent said their power supply was inadequate or nonexistent; now that's swelled to 88 percent. And in 2005 just 30 percent rated their economic situation negatively. Today that's more than doubled, to 64 percent.

As conditions have sharply worsened, so have expectations for improvement -- an especially troubling result, since hopes for a better future can be the glue that holds a struggling society together. In 2004 and 2005 alike, for example, three-quarters of Iraqis expected improvements in the coming year in their security, schools, availability of jobs, medical care, crime protection, clean water and power supply. Today only about 30 to 45 percent still expect any of these to get any better.

The survey's results are deeply distressing from an American perspective as well: The number of Iraqis who call it "acceptable" to attack U.S. and coalition forces, 17 percent in early 2004, has tripled to 51 percent now, led by near unanimity among Sunni Arabs. And 78 percent of Iraqis now oppose the presence of U.S. forces on their soil, though far fewer favor an immediate pullout.

PERSECUTION -- Iraqis face fundamental challenges. Three-quarters say they lack the freedom to live where they wish without persecution, or even to move about safely. In an open-ended question, 48 percent cite security as the single biggest problem in their lives, up from 18 percent in 2005. (In some locales that soars -- 80 percent in the divided Sunni Arab/Kurdish city of Kirkuk; nearly as high in Anbar, the center of Sunni Arab discontent, and in Shiite-dominated Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.)

Nationally, 12 percent report that ethnic cleansing -- the forced separation of Sunnis and Shiites -- has occurred in their neighborhoods. In mixed-population Baghdad, it's 31 percent. This is not desired: In rare agreement, 97 percent of Sunni Arabs and Shiites alike oppose the separation of Iraqis on sectarian lines.

Nonetheless, one in seven Iraqis overall -- rising to a quarter of Sunni Arabs, and more than a third of Baghdad residents -- say they themselves have moved homes in the last year to avoid violence or religious persecution.

Given all this, for the first time since the 2003 war, fewer than half of Iraqis, 42 percent, say life is better now than it was under Saddam Hussein, whose security forces are said to have murdered more than a million Iraqis.

Forty-two percent think their country is in a civil war; 24 percent more think one is likely. Barely more than four in 10 expect a better life for their children.

Three in 10 say they'd leave Iraq if they could.

VIOLENCE -- The experience of some interviewers working on this poll tells the tale brutally. While most carried out their work fairly uneventfully, others encountered incidents of the violence occurring in the country. In field notes, they reported witnessing shootings, bombings, beatings and kidnappings.

"I saw national guard forces catching some young people and they beat them violently and put guns to their heads and took them to an unknown place," said one. From another: "I saw a bomb exploding against a police patrol and the burning bodies of policemen." A third reported, "In front of me, an explosive went off under an American patrol."

The survey was conducted by a field staff of 150 Iraqis in all, including 103 interviewers, interviewing 2,212 randomly selected respondents at 458 locales across the country from Feb. 25 to March 5. (See related story on how the poll was done.)

STRIFE and STRESS -- Such conditions create a tremendous emotional burden. Anywhere from 72 to 82 percent of Iraqis report anger about what's happening in their country, depression, trouble sleeping and difficulty concentrating on their usual activities -- all potential indicators of traumatic stress.

Seventy-one percent report three or all four of these. Twenty-two percent -- one in five Iraqi adults -- experience three or four of them "a great deal" of the time. Multiple signs of stress, as well as severity, commonly are used in assessing risk of stress disorder.

Outside relatively peaceful Kurdistan, the violence, and the stress, soar. Experience of a "great deal" of stress spikes among people in troubled, Sunni-dominated Anbar province, Sunni Arabs overall, Baghdad residents and big-city residents overall.

Other areas are hardly violence-free. This poll asked about nine kinds of violence (car bombs, snipers or crossfire, kidnappings, fighting among opposing groups or abuse of civilians by various armed forces). Essentially everyone in Baghdad says at least one of these has occurred nearby; half report four or more of them. But outside Baghdad, 74 percent also report at least one of these, and 25 percent report four or more -- 34 percent excluding Kurdistan, which is far more peaceful than the country overall.

As noted above, 53 percent of Iraqis say a close friend or immediate family member has been hurt in the current violence. That ranges from three in 10 in the Kurdish provinces to, in Baghdad, nearly eight in 10. (The size of extended families in Iraq likely contributes to the breadth of this result.)

Overall, eight in 10 Iraqis say they've become "more wary or watchful." Nearly seven in 10 are careful in what they say about themselves to other people. Vast numbers say they routinely limit their movements, avoiding travel, avoiding markets and crowded places and above all, avoiding U.S. and coalition forces. These avoidance techniques are most prevalent in Baghdad, but are common elsewhere as well.

Among sectarian groups, the experience of nearby violence peaks among Sunni Arabs, who are much more likely, in particular, to report abuse by the authorities. It follows that Sunni Arabs also are more likely to exercise avoidance techniques -- and to feel anger about their situation.

THE AMERICANS -- The United States gets much of the blame. As noted, in the most troubling result from an American perspective, the number of Iraqis who call it "acceptable" to attack U.S. or coalition forces has soared from 17 percent in early 2004 to 51 percent now.

The main source of this antipathy is disaffected Sunni Arabs, the group that lost power with the overthrow of Saddam. Ninety-four percent of Sunni Arabs call attacks on U.S. forces acceptable. That compares with 35 percent of newly empowered Shiites (still a large number to endorse violence), vs. 7 percent of Kurds, who are far more favorably inclined toward the United States.

Even among Shiites, eight in 10 disapprove of the way the United States and other coalition forces have carried out their responsibilities in Iraq. More than eight in 10 Shiites (as well as 97 percent of Sunni Arabs) oppose the presence of U.S. and other forces in their country. (Kurds, again, differ powerfully; 75 percent support the U.S. presence.) More than seven in 10 Shiites -- and nearly all Sunni Arabs -- think the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is making security worse.

Asked whom they blame most for the current violence in Iraq, far and away the most common answer -- voiced by four in 10 Iraqis -- is either U.S. and coalition forces (31 percent), or George W. Bush personally (nine percent). Al Qaeda and foreign jihadi fighters are cited by 18 percent (far more by Shiites and Kurds than by Sunnis).

Indeed, among the occurrences of local violence measured in this poll, the top mention is "unnecessary violence against citizens by U.S. or coalition forces." Forty-four percent of Iraqis -- including 60 percent of Sunni Arabs -- report this as having occurred nearby.

In another sign of finger-pointing -- and perhaps an expression of helplessness -- 59 percent of Iraqis say they think the United States controls things in Iraq. Fewer than half as many said so in 2005, 24 percent.

Worsening views of U.S. and other forces in Iraq tracks the deterioration of conditions in the country. In the first ABC News poll in Iraq, in February 2004, 51 percent of Iraqis opposed the presence of U.S. forces on their soil. By November 2005 that jumped to 65 percent. Today, it's 78 percent.

But how to proceed is complicated. Even as they express discontent with U.S. forces, Iraqis are equivocal about their departure -- a reasonable compunction, given the uncertainty of what might follow. Just over a third (35 percent) favor immediate U.S. withdrawal, peaking at 55 percent of Sunni Arabs -- fewer than might be expected given this group's nearly unanimous anti-Americanism. About four in 10 -- Sunni and Shiite alike -- say U.S. forces should remain until security is restored.

"Leave now" sentiment is up, but not vastly, from 2005 -- 26 percent then, vs., again, 35 percent now.

SURGE and RECONSTRUCTION -- Adding forces, in any case, is not seen as a solution. Fewer than three in 10 Iraqis think sending additional U.S. troops to Baghdad and Anbar -- the Bush "surge" -- will improve security in these areas. Among Baghdad residents themselves, 36 percent think the surge will help things. In Anbar, where the Sunni Arab opposition is rooted, essentially everyone thinks it will make security worse.

These views relate to the overall lack of confidence in U.S. forces: Eighty-two percent of Iraqis say they're not confident in U.S. and U.K. forces -- 88 percent of Shiites as well as 97 percent of Sunni Arabs. (That falls to one-third of generally pro-U.S. Kurds.)

Reconstruction is another complaint: Nationwide, 67 percent of Iraqis say postwar reconstruction efforts in their area have been ineffective or nonexistent. Sixty percent of Shiites say so; among Sunnis, it's 94 percent. (There's another huge difference in Iraqi Kurdistan, where 73 percent call reconstruction effective.)

Interestingly, for all the negative changes in attitudes and experience, one result has remained essentially stable: Iraqis still divide, now by 48-52 percent, over whether the United States was right or wrong to invade in spring 2003.

Here the sectarian divide is as sharp as ever. Seventy percent of Shiites and 83 percent of Kurds -- groups brutally suppressed by Saddam -- endorse the invasion. But among Sunni Arabs, protected and empowered during Saddam's 23-year reign, 98 percent say it was wrong.

IRAQ'S FUTURE -- In perhaps the most positive result in this poll -- certainly one of the few -- a desire for political unity remains. Fifty-eight percent say Iraq should continue as a single, unified country with a central government in Baghdad. That's declined, though, from 79 percent in 2004 and 70 percent in 2005.

Twenty-eight percent -- including four in 10 Shiites and nearly half of Kurds -- would rather see the country become a federation of regional states. Fewer still, 14 percent, want to see Iraq divided into separate, independent states. Perhaps surprisingly, even among autonomy-minded Kurds, just 30 percent prefer division.

Public preference for a democracy in Iraq has fallen under half, from 57 percent in 2005 to 43 percent now. Only among Kurds does a majority favor democracy. Most Sunni Arabs, perhaps harkening to Saddam's days, want a "strong leader" serving for life; Shiites divide between democracy or an Islamic theocracy.

Democracy wins more support, 53 percent, as the best choice for the longer-term -- five years from now. But that's again less than in 2005, when it was 64 percent.

Views of the performance of Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki (a Shiite), are negative overall, with 57 percent disapproving. As with so much in Iraq, that overall view hides a razor-sharp sectarian split: Six in 10 Kurds and two-thirds of Shiites approve of Maliki's work. Ninety-six percent of Sunni Arabs disapprove.

Approval of Iraq's national government more broadly has worsened along with other views. Forty-six percent say it's doing its job well -- down from 61 percent in 2005. That approval ranges from seven in 10 Shiites and Kurds to just six percent of Sunni Arabs.

SUNNI-SHIITE SCHISM -- The 2005 poll noted a growing split between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq and identified it as a major threat to the country's future. It's sadly been borne out: The gap between these groups in attitude and experience yawns ever wider. Sunni Arabs -- just over a third of Iraqis -- represent a seething well of discontent.

Among Shiites, 53 percent say their own lives are going well -- hardly a rousing figure, but majority positive. Among Sunni Arabs, by contrast, only 7 percent say so; 93 percent say their lives are going badly. (Kurds, who also are mainly Sunni Muslims, but not ethnic Arabs, remain a vastly different story -- mostly satisfied, broadly pro-American, largely spared the violence to their south.)

Similarly, while 51 percent of Shiites see life improving in the next year, a mere 4 percent of Sunni Arabs agree. And while two-thirds of Shiites think their children will have a better life than theirs, seven in 10 Sunni Arabs think their children's lives will be worse.

The source of Sunni discontent is not only political but rooted in personal insecurity. While six in 10 Shiites (and nine in 10 Kurds) say the security situation in their neighborhood or village is good, 93 percent of Sunni Arabs say the opposite.

Sunnis are nearly twice as likely as Shiites to report nearby car bombings or suicide attacks -- 48 percent vs. 27 percent. And by much wider margins, Sunni Arabs are more likely than Shiites to report unnecessary violence against civilians by the Iraqi police and Army, as well as by local militia forces.

Fifty-five or 56 percent of Sunni Arabs report uncalled-for violence by the police or Iraqi Army forces in their area. Among Shiites that falls to just 7 or 8 percent. (Among Kurds it's almost non-existent.)

Sunni Arabs are far more negative on other measures of daily life as well, such as their protection from crime, the quality of local schools and local government, and their freedom of movement.

Violence in Sunni Arab areas by government forces hardly builds Sunni trust in the Shiite-led Iraqi government. As in many of these measures, there's a night-and-day difference between Sunni Arabs and other Iraqis in their trust in institutions -- the national government, the Iraqi Army and police, local leaders and local militias alike. And while most Shiites and Kurds think members of Iraq's National Assembly are willing to make needed compromises for peace, 90 percent of Sunni Arabs don't buy it.

In what might be seen as a small but hopeful sign of an eventual return to civil society, one group is spared this schism: local teachers. Majorities of Sunni Arabs (62 percent) and Shiites (73 percent) have confidence in them.

But that's thin soup compared with other results. In a dire result for the prospect of stability, 34 percent of Sunni Arabs say it's acceptable to attack Iraqi government forces. No wonder, perhaps, that 63 percent of Sunnis say their country is in a civil war.

SADDAM -- Differences between Sunni Arabs and other Iraqis are predictably sharp in their views on Saddam and his now banned Baath Party. Saddam's execution widened the wound: While 82 percent of Shiites (and 66 percent of Kurds) call it appropriate, 97 percent of Sunni Arabs call it inappropriate, and 96 percent say it made reconciliation in Iraq more difficult to achieve.

Many more Shiites and Kurds call Saddam's execution appropriate than think it will help reconciliation -- a sign of their antipathy for the man.

Reconciliation, in any case, seems far off. Ninety-six percent of Sunni Arabs say ex-Baathists should be permitted to hold Iraqi government jobs. About two-thirds of Shiites and Kurds alike say they should not.

BAGHDAD and KURDISTAN -- The city of Baghdad, with about 6 million residents, clearly is ground zero for Iraq's troubles. One reason is that it's so mixed in sectarian terms -- 56 percent Shiite, 43 percent Sunni Arab. Violence -- and stress -- peak in Baghdad.

Eighty percent of Baghdad residents rate security in their local area negatively, compared with 47 percent in the rest of Iraq. Essentially no one in Baghdad counts himself or herself as "very safe," vs. 32 percent elsewhere. As noted, 77 percent of Baghdad residents have had a friend or family member harmed in the current violence.

The Kurdish provinces are a study in contrast. Seventy-nine percent there feel "very" safe. Two-thirds say their lives are going well. Social and economic concerns far outweigh security; 95 percent rate their local security positively, virtually the opposite of Baghdad.

While there are complaints -- as in all of Iraq, supplies of fuel and electricity are sore points -- many conditions are rated far better in Iraqi Kurdistan than elsewhere, including schools, medical care, crime protection, water supply, local government, economic opportunity, free movement and the freedom to live without religious persecution.

Optimism also is dramatically higher in the Kurdish provinces; so, as noted, is support for the United States, which protected Kurdistan from Saddam with a "no-fly zone" after the 1991 Gulf War. Seventy-three percent in Kurdistan say reconstruction has been effective, compared with 27 percent in the rest of Iraq; 76 percent support the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in the country; and two-thirds say those forces are making Iraq safer.

KIRKUK -- But then there is Kirkuk, the divided city in Tamim province, just south of Iraqi Kurdistan. Traditionally Kurdish-dominated, Kirkuk was populated with Sunni Arabs by Saddam in order to cement his hold on the oil-rich area. Today its population is about evenly split between Kurds and Sunni Arabs, and its tensions are evident.

Seventy-four percent of Kirkuk residents rate their security negatively, about as many as do so in Baghdad (and compared with just 5 percent in Kurdistan). While some types of violence are comparatively low in Kirkuk, reports of car bombings and suicide attacks are notably higher. So is antipathy, in this Sunni city, toward Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, toward its Shiite militias, and toward Shiite-dominated Iran.

Kirkuk is scheduled to hold a referendum next year on whether the city should be incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan. There's concern about increased violence if it passes, and clearly the city is on edge: Half of Kirkuk residents expect their security to be worse still a year from now -- second only to Anbar in this negative expectation.

IRAN, et. al. -- For all their internal problems, Iraqis seem to feel, as well, largely friendless among their immediate neighbors. Seventy-one percent think neighboring Shiite Iran is actively engaged in encouraging sectarian violence in Iraq. Sixty-six percent suspect the same of Syria; 56 percent, of Saudi Arabia.

There are big doctrinal differences. Iraqi Sunnis (Arabs and Kurds alike) are more apt to suspect Iran, which is mainly Shiite. But Iraqi Shiites almost unanimously suspect the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia of the same kind of activities. And Iraqi Kurds and Shiites alike, but fewer Sunni Arabs, think Syria is sowing violence.

It's a web of suspicion; what's notable, though, is that even among Shiites, nearly half suspect Iran of fomenting Iraq's current violence.

Another result indicates how Iraqis are feeling friendless more broadly; it asked whether these plus other countries -- Russia, Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom -- are playing a positive, negative or neutral role in Iraq. No more than 20 percent see any of these seven countries as a positive force. Rated worst were the United States and the United Kingdom, seen by 77 percent and 75 percent, respectively, as playing a negative role in Iraq.

PROGRESS and PROBLEMS -- While it doesn't mitigate Iraq's troubles, there has been some progress. Median household incomes have advanced from $150 per month in 2004 to $204 in 2005 and $286 now. Employment is up sharply. So is possession of consumer goods: Nearly every household in Iraq now has a satellite dish and a radio; nine in 10 have a cell phone, up from a mere 6 percent in 2004.

On the other hand, in a persistent complaint, one in three households receive no power from utility lines whatsoever, and just 12 percent get it for more than 12 hours a day. Power and fuel supply are the two most negatively rated aspects of daily life in Iraq. While violence is devastating, it's sporadic; the lack of fuel and power are a lower-level discomfort, but a daily one.

Ratings of security in the country are unevenly spread. Overall, 46 percent of Iraqis rate the security situation in their own neighborhood or village positively -- down from 61 percent in 2005, and back to where it was in early 2004. But the variation is broad. In Anbar province essentially no one rates the security positively, in Baghdad 20 percent, in Kirkuk 26 percent, in Basra city 41 percent. By contrast, it's rated positively by 95 percent in the Kurdish provinces and 73 percent in the south when Basra city is excluded.

As noted, Iraqis have grown vastly more pessimistic about their current living conditions and their expectations for the future alike. Deteriorating conditions alone may not be the sole factor; these worsening views also likely reflect the extent to which the twin problems of violence and slow development have simply ground down public optimism. The hazard of high expectations is the disillusionment that's produced when they go unmet; this is what Iraqis seem to be expressing today.

Still, for all its economic, structural, political and military challenges, the story of Iraq today is most strikingly a personal one, punctuated by random violence and loss. While on the field work for this poll, "I saw a school manager killed with his son in a very awful way," one interviewer reported. Another reported witnessing the kidnapping of a group of government employees; "No one intervened to save them, and their destiny is unknown."

METHODOLOGY -- This poll for ABC News, USA Today, the BBC and ARD was conducted Feb. 25-March 5, 2007, through in-person interviews with a random national sample of 2,212 Iraqi adults, including oversamples in Anbar province, Basra City, 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.

ABC News polls can be found on ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollvault.html.

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