Iraq Sidebar: How The Poll Was Done

Polling in Iraq: From Suicide Bombs to "No Major Events"

Sept. 10, 2007 — -- In Dahuk, Wasit, Maysan and Najaf provinces, "No major events." But in Tamim, Basra and Dhi Qar, interviewers reported, "Intense fighting, suicide bombs." And in Baghdad, "Intense fighting, suicide bombs, major U.S. military operations, assaults to civilians, assaults to security forces."

Such is polling in Iraq.

The remarkable thing is that despite the violence and disarray it's possible to obtain a random, representative national sample of the opinions of ordinary Iraqi citizens, interviewed in their homes about their living conditions, assessments of security and other attitudes. And again, as in the previous three ABC News-sponsored polls in Iraq, all interviewers returned safely from their work.

Their experiences reflected the conditions they encountered. In Anbar, "It is very sensitive and if a stranger comes here and asks some questions everybody will be aware that a stranger is in the neighborhood," one field worker reported. "We are very local interviewers so we did not face many problems." In Baghdad, related another, "People in this area are afraid of everything, it was hard to do the work."

Yet in Muthanna province, where just "some fighting" was reported, "Respondents were very positive about our visits to their houses, especially the women. They thanked us for visiting them and asking their opinion," an interviewer there said. "Generally, people accepted to participate in the survey," she added. "But refusals went up after the assassination of the governor."

Field work for the latest survey, this one co-sponsored with ABC News by the BBC and the Japanese broadcaster NHK, was managed by D3 Systems of Vienna, Va. and KA Research Ltd. of Istanbul, which have been jointly polling in Iraq since summer 2004. D3, which specializes in polling in difficult conditions, also has managed the field work for two ABC News polls (one with the BBC World Service) in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, D3/KARL works with an in-country, all-Iraqi staff of about 200 interviewers on call to 19 district offices scattered across the country. Interviewers are familiar with their local area, enabling them to navigate the geographical and administrative terrain alike. It comes in handy: As in previous surveys, several teams were detained during the field work for questioning about their work, either by government or militia forces, then were released.

In Tamim province, "They stopped us in Daquq district, they demanded that we show official papers, they wanted to learn who asks for this kind of work and who is doing such things. We said we didn't know, that it is just our job to ask the questions," an interviewer reported in field journals kept for this study. "Our official company papers were useful to convince them. Thank God, they let us go without more problems."

The interviewers were being truthful: The sponsor of the survey was not identified to field workers in Iraq, both for the integrity of the data and for their own safety.

Field teams included male and female interviewers accompanied by a supervisor. In a further security measure, Shiite field staff were assigned to Shiite areas, Sunni Arabs to Sunni areas, Kurds to Kurdish areas. In case they are stopped by militia forces, many interviewers in mixed areas carry dual forms of identification with separate Shiite- and Sunni-sounding names.

Interviewers dealt with more than just hostile questioning. In Salahuddin, "There were lots of road blocks and check points on most roads of the province. All the bridges were full of armed men," one report said. "A big explosion in Baiji district caused the security forces to come in large numbers, and that made travel a lot more difficult." After the Aug. 20 assassination in Muthanna, another interviewer said, "The curfew lasted two days and we had great difficulty to return to our office to deliver the questionnaires."

Sometimes more prosaic roadblocks were involved; one sampling point in the marshes of Basra province was so remote that after driving as near as possible, an interviewer said, "We used animals pulling carts and small boats called 'mashoof' to reach the selected sampling point." Another location, a village in the Salman district of Muthanna, "is 142 kilometers from the center," another said, "and ordinary transportation was hard to find."

The survey consisted of interviews (averaging 27 minutes long) of randomly selected adults at randomly selected homes via 457 individual sampling points, themselves randomly selected across the country. Questionnaires were prepared in Arabic and Kurdish (using the Sorani dialect); 69 percent of interviews were either directly observed by supervisors, back-checked by in-person visits or back-checked by phone. Of the 117 interviewers on this project, all but two had previous experience on similar surveys.

A "cooperation rate" refers to the number of randomly selected individuals who agree to participate in a survey; in the United States, cooperation of 40 percent is considered reasonable. In Iraq, despite its difficulties and sectarian tensions, 65 percent of randomly selected respondents agreed to cooperate.

In addition to keeping field notes, teams carried cameras to take photos of interviews when the respondents agreed. The pictures underscore the wide range of Iraq's population, with some respondents in Western garb, down to a knotted tie; others in traditional clothes such as the hijab (veil) and dishdasha (flowing robes).

Notably, all the photos from Anbar and Baghdad are from the neck down; no respondent in either of these provinces consented to have their faces shown, an indication itself of security concerns there. In other areas – notably the far more secure Kurdish north – respondents smiled genially for the camera.

Nonetheless, even in Anbar, where insularity is high and resentment over the U.S. invasion seethes, an interviewer reported, "I have noticed that the respondents answered very seriously and were not afraid to tell me their answers to these questions."