Iraqis' Own Surge Assessment: Few See Security Gains

ABC News/BBC/NHK National Survey of Iraq Finds Worsening Public Attitudes


Sept. 10, 2007 —

Barely a quarter of Iraqis say their security has improved in the past six months, a negative assessment of the surge in U.S. forces that reflects worsening public attitudes across a range of measures, even as authorities report some progress curtailing violence.

Apart from a few scattered gains, a new national survey by ABC News, the BBC and the Japanese broadcaster NHK finds deepening dissatisfaction with conditions in Iraq, lower ratings for the national government and growing rejection of the U.S. role there.

Click here for a sidebar on how the poll was done.

Click here for full report with charts and questionnaire.

More Iraqis say security in their local area has gotten worse in the last six months than say it's gotten better, 31 percent to 24 percent, with the rest reporting no change. Far more, six in 10, say security in the country overall has worsened since the surge began, while just one in 10 sees improvement.

More directly assessing the surge itself -- a measure that necessarily includes views of the United States, which are highly negative -- 65 to 70 percent of Iraqis say it's worsened rather than improved security, political stability and the pace of redevelopment alike.

There are some improvements, but they're sparse and inconsistent. Thirty-eight percent in Anbar province, a focal point of the surge, now rate local security positively; none did so six months ago. In Baghdad fewer now describe themselves as feeling completely unsafe in their own neighborhoods -- 58 percent, down from 84 percent. Yet other assessments of security in these locales have not improved, nor has the view nationally.

Overall, 41 percent report security as their greatest personal problem, down seven points from 48 percent in March. But there's been essentially no change in the number who call it the nation's top problem (56 percent, with an additional 28 percent citing political or military issues). And there are other problems aplenty to sour the public's outlook -- lack of jobs, poor power and fuel supply, poor medical services and many more.

Big Picture

The big picture remains bleak. Six in 10 Iraqis say their own lives are going badly, and even more, 78 percent, say things are going badly for the country overall -- up 13 points from last winter. Expectations have crumbled; just 23 percent see improvement for Iraq in the year ahead, down from 40 percent last winter and 69 percent in November 2005.

More than six in 10 now call the U.S.-led invasion of their country wrong, up from 52 percent last winter. Fifty-seven percent call violence against U.S. forces acceptable, up six points. And despite the uncertainties of what might follow, 47 percent now favor the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq -- a 12-point rise.

In a better result for the United States, fewer now blame U.S. or coalition forces directly for the violence occurring in Iraq -- 19 percent, down from 31 percent six months ago; as many (21 percent) blame al Qaeda. (Eight percent blame George W. Bush personally.)

If the United States is unpopular, others fare no better. Seventy-nine percent of Iraqis believe Iran is actively engaged in encouraging sectarian violence in Iraq, up eight points; majorities also suspect Saudi Arabia and Syria of fomenting violence. And the poll finds almost unanimous opposition to most activities of al Qaeda in Iraq; the sole exception is its attacks on U.S. and other coalition forces.


This survey, based on face-to-face interviews of 2,212 randomly selected Iraqis across the country Aug. 17-24, follows a similar poll in Iraq by ABC, the BBC and other partners last Feb. 25-March 5. Together the two surveys bracket the surge, providing an independent assessment of changes in local conditions and attitudes.

The Bush administration, with input from the U.S. military and its commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, reports this week on its own assessment of conditions in Iraq and the effect of the surge of approximately 30,000 additional U.S. troops there.

Iraqis' own views can differ from military evaluations of the surge for good reason. Public attitudes are not based on a narrow accounting of more or fewer bombings and murders, but on the bigger picture -- which for most in Iraq means continued violence, poor services, economic deprivation, inadequate reconstruction, political gridlock and other complaints. For instance, the reported drop in Baghdad from 896 violent deaths in July to 656 in August may simply have been insufficient to boost morale -- particularly when violent deaths nationally were up by 20 percent, largely on the basis of bombings that killed an estimated 500 in two villages near the Syrian border on Aug. 14.

Indeed just a quarter of Iraqis in this poll say they feel "very safe" in their own neighborhoods, unchanged from six months ago. (And none reports feeling "very safe" in Baghdad or Anbar province.) Reports of car bombings and suicide attacks are more widespread; 42 percent now say these have happened nearby, up 10 points.

With both continued violence and no improvements in living conditions, frustration with Iraq's own government has grown as well. Despite billions spent, only 23 percent of Iraqis report effective reconstruction efforts in their local area. And about two-thirds disapprove of the work of both the current government overall (up by 12 points since winter), and of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally.

The ABC/BBC/NHK poll, consisting of interviews that averaged nearly a half-hour in length, covered a wide range of attitudes and perceptions -- personal experiences, views of the nation's prospects, ratings of security and the surge, politics and reconstruction, the performance of the United States, the level of local violence, ethnic cleansing and more.

Personal Prospects

In perhaps the most bottom-line measure of a country's well-being, 61 percent of Iraqis say their lives are going badly, unchanged from last winter and double what it was in late 2005. Among Sunni Arabs, the country's elites under Saddam Hussein, this soars to 88 percent, while among Kurds in the semi-autonomous north it's jumped from one-third to half in the last six months alone.

The change over the long term is striking: In November 2005, 71 percent of Iraqis said their own lives were going well, compared with 39 percent in the last two polls.

The future looks equally bleak: Only 29 percent of Iraqis expect their own lives to get better in the next year, down six points from last winter, including a 17-point drop among Kurds. And just a third of Iraqis now think their children will have a better life than they do, down nine points from six months ago. Hopes for the next generation have fallen by 11 points among Shiites -- and by 24 points among increasingly negative Kurds.

Iraq's Condition

In terms of the country more broadly, in November 2005 a bare majority of Iraqis, 52 percent, said things were going badly. That rose to 65 percent last March, and 78 percent in this poll. The latest change includes a huge 40-point jump in negativity among Kurds, who enjoy far better living conditions in their northern provinces, but seem to have grown more alarmed about the situation to the south.

Expectations that the country will be in better shape a year off, at just 23 percent, are a third of their November 2005 level. Positive expectations have fallen by 23 points among Shiites and by 34 points among Kurds; they remain rock-bottom among Sunni Arabs.

Surge and Security

Overall assessments of security show no improvement since last winter, and direct ratings of the surge are highly negative. In one measure, the number of Iraqis who rate their local security positively (43 percent) is no better than it was in March. In another, as noted, just 24 percent say local security has improved in the last six months, including 16 percent in Baghdad, and not one respondent in Anbar.

Even fewer, 11 percent nationally, think security has improved in the country as a whole.

The widespread nature of the violence is part of this. In Baghdad, 52 percent report car bombings or suicide attacks in their local area, the same as in March; but so do 39 percent in the country, up from 26 percent six months ago. Accounts of other forms of violence -- such as snipers or crossfire, kidnappings for ransom and sectarian or factional fighting -- also remain widespread, though their prevalence has not increased.

Across the country overall, feelings of personal safety are no better than in March; just 26 percent of Iraqis feel "very safe" in their own neighborhood. And that's almost nonexistent across Iraq's major metro areas -- Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk and Mosul -- where 98 percent of residents feel either "not very safe" (50 percent) or "not safe at all" (48 percent). Ratings of personal safety are better, though hardly good, in Iraq's smaller cities, villages and rural areas.

Direct ratings of the surge itself are particularly negative. At best, only 18 percent of Iraqis say it has improved security in surge areas; at worst, just six percent say it's improved the pace of economic development. Indeed, as noted, the surge broadly is seen to have done more harm than good, with 65 to 70 percent saying it's worsened rather than improved security in surge areas, security in other areas, conditions for political dialogue, the ability of the Iraqi government to do its work, the pace of reconstruction and the pace of economic development.

Every respondent in Baghdad, and also in Anbar (where George W. Bush paid a surprise visit to a sprawling U.S. base last week), says the surge has made security worse now than it was six months ago (anti-U.S. sentiment in these areas is very high, and likely a factor in these direct assessments). Views in the rest of the country are hardly positive: Outside Baghdad and Anbar, still just 26 percent say the surge has improved security.

A broader question, not specifically linked to the surge, has an equally negative result: Just 18 percent of Iraqis say the presence of U.S. forces is making security better in their country overall, about the same as in March (21 percent). Instead 72 percent say the U.S. presence is making Iraq's security worse.

While fewer in Baghdad now feel "not safe at all," it's hard to tell if that reflects better conditions, or more people accommodating themselves to existing conditions -- the "new normal." Indeed, another result finds a 20-point drop in the number in Baghdad who rate local security positively.

In Anbar, as noted, 38 percent now rate local security positively -- none did in March. But there's been no improvement in the number who feel entirely unsafe (44 percent, compared with 38 percent in March).

There's one further, disquieting result on security: Asked which group is in command of security in their village or neighborhood, 16 percent of Iraqis -- up 11 points since March -- reply that no one commands security in their area. Across Iraq's major metropolitan areas, that rises to 30 percent. In Baghdad alone, it's 36 percent. This may be less a direct assessment of local command than an expression of frustration with ongoing lawlessness.

More Baghdad and Anbar

There's particular interest in conditions in the focal points of the surge. In his visit to Anbar last week, Bush declared, "normal life is returning." Yet most Anbar residents seem not to see it that way.

Forty-six percent in Anbar say lack of security is the biggest problem in their own lives, as many as say so elsewhere (it's 41 percent nationally). Seventy-four percent expect their children's lives to be worse than their own -- nearly double the national figure. On the plus side, as noted, 38 percent rate local security positively, while none did in March; and half as many now call it "very bad," 32 percent. But still 62 percent in Anbar rate local security negatively overall. And reports of factional fighting there are up.

Further, there have been increases in the most negative ratings ("very bad") on a variety of other issues in Anbar -- including the availability of jobs (now rated as very bad by 62 percent, nearly double the March figure), local schools, the supply of clean water and the availability of household goods, among others. Sixty-three percent say their freedom of movement is very bad; 73 percent say that about the availability of fuel.

Baghdad has its own continued problems. There have been 13- and 14-point drops in the number of Baghdad residents who report snipers or crossfire and kidnappings for ransom nearby; but still 43 and 44 percent, respectively, report these as occurring in their own areas. Sixty-eight percent call local security "very bad" -- actually up from March. One reason may be that even apart from sectarian violence, sharply more give a "very bad" rating to their family's protection from crime -- 66 percent, up from 44 percent in March. Again, as these are attitudinal measures, the drivers can be less crime protection -- or simply less patience among a wearied and dispirited population.

Reconstruction and Politics

Nor, in the eyes of Iraqis, have reconstruction efforts or political leadership improved. As noted, only 23 percent of Iraqis report effective reconstruction efforts in their local area -- down by 10 points in the past six months. It's down by 25 points among Kurds, another of many signs of increasingly negative views in that once-positive group.

In terms of national politics, 65 percent disapprove of the way the Iraqi government has carried out its responsibilities, while just 35 percent approve. Disapproval of the Shiite-dominated government is up by 15 points, to 47 percent, among Shiites themselves; and up by 24 points among Kurds. It remains nearly unanimously negative among Sunni Arabs.

Similarly, disapproval of Maliki's performance as prime minister is up by nine points, to 66 percent. His approval rating, 33 percent overall (very similar to George W. Bush's), has fallen by 10 points since winter, including by 13 points among Shiites and by 27 points among Kurds.


In one slim glimmer of political improvement, half of Iraqis now say members of parliament are "willing to make necessary compromises" for peace; that's up by nine points from 41 percent last winter. But while most Shiites and Kurds say so (66 and 55 percent, respectively,) far fewer Sunni Arabs -- 24 percent -- agree. (The day before interviews began, Maliki and Iraq's Kurdish president announced a new alliance of moderate Shiites and Kurds; Sunni moderates, however, refused to join.)

There are a few other whispers of possible gains. There's been a scant five-point drop in the number of Iraqis who report unnecessary violence against citizens by the Iraqi army occurring in their local area; notably that includes a 26-point decline among Sunni Arabs (but a 10-point rise among Shiites, albeit just to 17 percent). There have been five- and six-point gains in the level of confidence in the Iraqi army and police, to sizable majorities of 67 and 69 percent, respectively. (This confidence still is vastly lower, albeit somewhat improved, among Sunni Arabs.) And there's been a 12-point drop, to just 24 percent, in confidence in local militias, including a 19-point decline among Shiites.

Another hopeful sign -- and a remarkable one given its troubles -- is the continued preference for Iraq to remain a single, unified state with a central government in Baghdad. Sixty-two percent favor that outcome, about the same as in March (albeit down from 79 percent in February 2004).

Support for a single, centrally governed state has risen among Shiites, but fallen among Kurds, who've moved more toward favoring separation of the country into independent states. Separation now gets 49 percent support among Kurds, up 19 points; an additional 42 percent of Kurds favor the Swiss-like solution of a group of regional states with a federal government in Baghdad. A single state retains most support among Sunni Arabs.

The War and U.S. Forces

Other assessments of the United States are overwhelmingly negative. As noted, nearly two-thirds of Iraqis now say it was wrong for the United States and its allies to have invaded Iraq -- 63 percent, up from 52 percent six months ago and from 39 percent in the first Iraq poll by ABC, the BBC and NHK (and the German broadcaster ARD) in February 2004.

Even among Shiites, empowered by the overthrow of Saddam, 51 percent now say the invasion was wrong, up sharply from 29 percent in March. (Further deterioration may be ahead; among Shiites who still support the invasion, the number who call it "absolutely" right has fallen from 34 percent in March to 14 percent now.) Only among the largely autonomous Kurds does a majority still support the invasion, and even their support, 71 percent, is down by 12 points.

Seventy-nine percent of Iraqis oppose the presence of coalition forces in the country, essentially unchanged from last winter -- including more than eight in 10 Shiites and nearly all Sunni Arabs. (Seven in 10 Kurds, by contrast, still support the presence of these forces.)

Similarly, 80 percent of Iraqis disapprove of the way U.S. and other coalition forces have performed in Iraq; the only change has been an increase in negative ratings of the U.S. performance among Kurds. And 86 percent of Iraqis express little or no confidence in U.S. and U.K. forces, similar to last winter and again up among Kurds.

Accusations of mistreatment continue: Forty-one percent of Iraqis in this poll (vs. 44 percent in March) report unnecessary violence against Iraqi citizens by U.S. or coalition forces. That peaks at 63 percent among Sunni Arabs, and 66 percent in Sunni-dominated Anbar.

This disapproval rises to an endorsement of violence: Fifty-seven percent of Iraqis now call attacks on coalition forces "acceptable," up six points from last winter and more than three times its level (17 percent) in February 2004. Since March, acceptability of such attacks has risen by 15 points among Shiites (from 35 percent to 50 percent), while remaining near-unanimous among Sunnis (93 percent).

Kurds, by contrast -- protected by the United States when Saddam remained in power -- continue almost unanimously to call these attacks unacceptable.

Acceptability of attacks on U.S. forces also varies by locale, peaking at 100 percent in Anbar, 69 percent in Kirkuk city and 60 percent in Baghdad, compared with 38 percent in Basra and just three percent in the northern Kurdish provinces.


Given such hostile views, 47 percent now say the United States and other coalition forces should leave Iraq immediately -- a view that's risen equally among Sunni Arabs (72 percent now say the U.S. should leave immediately, up 17 points) and Shiites (44 percent, up 16 points). Kurds almost unanimously disagree; just eight percent favor an immediate withdrawal.

The number of Iraqis favoring an immediate U.S. withdrawal has risen from 26 percent in November 2005 and 35 percent last winter; at 47 percent it's now a plurality for the first time (in the next most-popular option, 34 percent say U.S. forces should "remain until security is restored"). The fact that support for an immediate pullout of U.S. forces is not even higher, given the vast unpopularity of their presence, likely reflects the uncertainty of what might follow their departure.

Indeed, apart from Kurds, support for immediate withdrawal is lowest, and has risen the least, in Baghdad, whose mixed Shiite-Sunni status puts it at particular risk. Desire for the United States to "leave now" is highest in Anbar, still deeply anti-American despite any accommodation its leaders have made with the U.S. military.

The rise in support for U.S. withdrawal is linked to worsening views of the country's condition. People who think things are going badly for Iraq are far more likely to favor immediate withdrawal -- 56 percent vs. 16 percent. Similarly, people who are pessimistic about the country's future also are far more likely to favor withdrawal -- 53 percent, vs. 23 percent among optimists. With optimism down, support for withdrawal is up.

Clearly there are concerns -- varying sharply by population group -- about the implications if the U.S. does withdraw without first restoring civil order. Nearly half of Iraqis, 46 percent, foresee Shiite-dominated Iran taking control of parts of Iraq. As many foresee parts of Iraq becoming bases of operation for international terrorists. Fewer, just over a third, think U.S. withdrawal would lead to full-scale civil war in Iraq, but with big differences: Two in 10 Shiites foresee full-scale civil war, but that rises to four in 10 Sunni Arabs and six in 10 Kurds.

Paradoxically, Sunni Arabs -- who dislike the United States most intensely and are most apt to favor its immediate withdrawal -- also are most apt to foresee a takeover of parts of Iraq by Shiite-dominated Iran if the United States does pull out. This apparent lack of palatable alternatives underscores Sunni Arabs' quandary, leaving them, in particular, so discontented with conditions in Iraq today.

Al Qaeda in Iraq

While U.S. efforts are viewed resoundingly negatively, this does not translate into support for activities of al Qaeda in Iraq. Disturbingly, nearly half of Iraqis (predominantly Sunni Arabs) say it's acceptable for al Qaeda in Iraq to attack U.S. and coalition forces. But Iraqis -- Sunni and Shiite alike -- almost unanimously reject other activities of al Qaeda in Iraq -- attacking Iraqi civilians (100 percent call this unacceptable), attempting to gain control of some areas (98 percent) and recruiting foreign fighters to come to Iraq (97 percent).

Other Local Conditions

Overall, of 13 local conditions tested in this poll, just one is reported to have improved -- ratings of local schools, eight points better to 51 percent positive. All the rest are stable or slightly worse, and all are rated poorly, ranging from views of local security (rated negatively by 57 percent) to the supply of electricity and fuel (both 92 percent negative). All are devastatingly bad in Baghdad, where in most cases every single respondent rated local conditions negatively, as was the case in March.

Segregation and Violence

Segregation of Iraqis -- both forced and voluntary -- continues to occur. Across the country, one in six Iraqis -- 17 percent -- report the separation of Sunni and Shiite Arabs on sectarian lines, including 11 percent who describe this as mainly forced. In Baghdad, it soars: Forty-three percent report the separation of Sunnis and Shiites from mixed to segregated areas, and 27 percent say it's mainly forced -- similar to the 31 percent who said so in March.

Ethnic cleansing clearly is not isolated in Baghdad. The forced separation of Iraqis along sectarian lines is reported by 39 percent in Basra city, in the mainly Shiite south; and by 24 percent -- one in four -- across all major metropolitan areas.

In a continued sign of hope, this separation is enormously unpopular: Ninety-eight percent, with agreement across ethnic and sectarian lines, oppose it.

Related results underscore the difficulty of life in Iraq: Seventy-seven percent rate their freedom to live where they want without persecution negatively; 74 percent rate their freedom of safe movement negatively. Both are essentially unchanged from March.

Ethnic cleansing is far from the only violence being visited upon Iraqis. As noted, 42 percent report car bombs and suicide attacks nearby; that includes 26 percent -- one in four -- who say these have occurred in the past six months.

Forty-one percent report unnecessary violence against Iraqi citizens by U.S. or coalition forces (26 percent say this has occurred in the last six months). Four in 10 also report kidnappings for ransom in their areas; notably that soars to 82 percent in Kirkuk and 68 percent in Basra, vs. 44 percent in Baghdad.

Other forms of violence are also troublingly high: Thirty-four percent of Iraqis report fighting between government and insurgent forces in their local area (two in 10 in the last six months), 30 percent report snipers or crossfire; as many report unnecessary violence by local militias, 27 percent report sectarian fighting and two in 10 report unnecessary violence by the Iraqi army or police.

The number of Iraqis who believe Iran is encouraging sectarian violence in Iraq, 79 percent, is up by eight points since March, chiefly because a majority of Shiites now share this view (62 percent, up 15 points). There's also been a nine-point rise, to 65 percent, in the number who believe mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia is encouraging violence. (Just 28 percent of Sunni Arabs hold this view, but that's up by 17 points, and it's risen among Kurds as well.) As many, 66 percent, also suspect Syria of encouraging violence.


A final point is a key one in Iraq's political equation: the makeup of the country by ethnic and religious groups. Iraq commonly is described as a majority Shiite nation, apparently on the basis of an undated and unsourced reference in the CIA's "World Factbook" proposing that 60 to 65 percent of Iraqis are Shiites.

In this survey, instead, Shiite Arabs comprise just under half of the population, 48 percent, as they did in the March poll, 47 percent.

Sunni Arabs account for 33 percent in this poll, again very similar (and within sampling tolerances) to their 35 percent in the March poll. Kurds accounted for 16 and 15 percent, respectively, in the two surveys; with three percent "other" in both. Together these two surveys consist of more than 4,400 interviews from 915 sampling points, a large combined sample with an unusual level of geographical coverage.


This poll for ABC News, the BBC and NHK was conducted Aug. 17-24, 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.

Click here for a sidebar on how the poll was done.

Click here for full report with charts and questionnaire.