Spinning Iraqi Opinion at Taxpayer Expense

I find the cover page at the International Republican Institute Web site concerning its recent polling in Iraq to be extremely disturbing. IRI is of course closely linked to the U.S. Republican Party and does the polling with U.S. tax dollars (i.e., you and I are paying for it). The Web site tries to spin the alarming results of the poll so as to emphasize the positives for the Bush administration. The only positive signs they can come up with, though, are that 64 percent of Iraqis remain optimistic that next year will be better than this; that 58 percent of Iraqis believe elections will be held in January; that two-thirds think a civil war unlikely; and that 52 percent of Iraqis believe that religion and state should respect one another but remain separate.

The authors of this screed go out of their way to debunk press reports that a majority of Iraqis favor religious parties, pointing out that few parties polled well. This statement is frankly dishonest; in fact the entire summary is deeply dishonest, and is designed to help Bush win the election. All Americans should be outraged at this misuse of supposed social science and our tax money.

Before looking at the actual poll numbers, I can signal my disagreements with the summary. Optimism is relative and may or may not tell us much. It is not actually a good sign that over 40 percent of Iraqis either do not believe that elections can be held in January or don’t know if they can.

The question is not how many think civil war likely. It is who thinks civil war is likely. If Kirkuk does, that is alarming, because they are the ones who would fight such a war. Obviously a civil war is far from the thinking of a largely Shi’ite city like Basra, of 1.3 million deep in the Shi’ite south.

Western observers are extremely imprecise in their language about religion and state. Many say that Grand Ayatollah Sistani favors a separation of religion and state, which is completely untrue. He wants Islamic law to be the law of the land, and wants his fatwas on “social issues” to be obeyed. He just doesn’t want clerics to run the Islamic state – he wants it to be laypeople. So the model is more like the Sudan (if Sudan had genuine elections) than it is like Iran. So how exactly the question was asked in Arabic would be key to the answer given and to what that answer actually means. If the Iraqis thought you were asking about clerical rule, then a bare majority is against it. If they thought you were asking about implementing Islamic law, the answer might be different. And the most popular politicians are the ones who most want Islamic law. The poll does not even ask about Islamic law.

Although Iraqis did not strongly identify with parties, they have over and over made it clear in IRI and other polls who the most popular politicians in the country are. The men named for whom Iraqis would vote are Ibrahim Jaafari, leader of the al-Da’wa Party (founded in 1958 as a revolutionary Shi’ite organization aiming for an Islamic state) and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (the name says it all). Jaafari, for some odd reason, was not included in this most recent poll (perhaps in hopes that leaving him out of the choices would allow the IRI to deny the clear trend toward theocratic voting). I could not find the slide at the IRI site that gave al-Hakim by far the biggest lead among the rest, but it was reported in the press summaries of the poll.

Some 40 percent of Iraqis say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by a religious leader. About 11 percent say they would vote for a candidate endorsed by a political party. But all the most important political parties in the Arab provinces (Da’wa, SCIRI, the Association of Muslim Scholars) are religious. So this result suggests that at least half of the population will vote as Sistani, Da’wa and so forth instruct them. Another 15 percent would vote as their tribal leaders say. But a large number of tribal leaders are loyal to particular clerics, so that this may not be such a separate group.

The IRI poll is skewed to begin with. Its sample is only 55 percent Shi’ite, whereas the population is almost certainly 65 percent Shiite. The sample is 34 percent Sunni and 9.3 percent “Muslim.” Sunnis would be far more likely to represent themselves as just “Muslim” than would Shi’ites, and therefore the poll is likely to undercount Shi’ite views significantly. Since, in turn, Shi’ites are more likely to want a theocracy, given that the Sunni middle classes retain some Ba’ath-era secularism, if Sunnis are over-represented then so would be secularists.

The “optimism” of the Iraqis, which keeps being touted by the U.S. right in justification of the mess they have made over there, is a more complex issue than they pretend. First of all, we don’t know why they are optimistic about next year being better than this. It could be that they have been plunged into such unprecedented misery that they believe it cannot get worse. “Better” is a relative word, not an absolute one. Second, this poll shows 45 percent of Iraqis saying the country is headed in the wrong direction, a big jump from June. So the optimism is declining fast, and it is no longer the case that a majority is optimistic. Indeed, more are now pessimistic (45 percent) than are optimistic (41 percent). The way the question is asked can also influence the answer. What does “headed in the right direction” even mean to Iraqis? Did they use the word ittijah? Would it have made a difference if they had asked a question like, “Are current policies of the U.S. and Allawi in Iraq likely to produce an improved situation over time?”

Not only are people in the Sunni Arab areas pessimistic, which could be expected, but so are people in Baghdad. And confidence in the northern mixed cities of Mosul and Kirkuk has plummeted. Kirkuk is obviously a tinderbox. Indeed, the only places where optimists form a majority are the deep south around Basra and the Kurdish regions. Even Kurdish optimism is declining from previous highs.

Some 34 percent of people in Mosul and Kirkuk believe that a civil war is possible or imminent! Since those are the likely sites of a civil war, that over a third think it a serious threat is quite alarming. Moreover, the people of a country are not a good guide to how likely civil war is. Virtually no one in Yugoslavia would have predicted a civil war in 1989. People can learn to hate really fast, in a week or two; and then observers later complain about “centuries-old hatreds,” when in fact very often people had gotten along just fine for decades before the conflagration.

Suspicion of the United States is so great that two-thirds of Iraqis believe any civil war that breaks out would likely be instigated by America! And 22 percent believe that it would be instigated by Israel. More Iraqis blamed the U.S. and its allies in Iraq for the current poor security situation than blamed foreign terrorists! And they were four times more likely to blame the U.S. and coalition than to blame armed elements of the former regime!

About 55 percent say that the current interim government does not represent people like them. Only 8 percent enthusiastically say it represents them. Half of Iraqis blame the government for being ineffective, and only 44 percent think that it has been at all effective (the same 8 percent are enthusiastic). Allawi’s effectiveness rating has fallen from 65 percent last July to 45 percent now.

Virtually none of the main points made by the IRI at its Web site about its own poll are valid in context, which does not exactly inspire confidence in the poll takers. The link to the poll results is given at the bottom of their page, in .pdf. Go look at the slides yourself. It is not in fact a pretty picture.

First, the poll is being greeted as a huge joke in Iraq, both because it is widely felt that its methodology was deeply flawed (even a local Baghdad IRI official admitted as much) and because its more positive findings are contradicted by local Iraqi polling. They left out any question about the country’s most popular politician, Ibrahim Jaafari!

Second, they have actively suppressed at their Web site slides Q27, which reveal the popularity and recognition ratings of major political figures. Here are some selected findings, arranged according to level of support. (Note, I just don’t have time to type it all up, but am presenting all the top figures along with some others who are important but scored lower).


Abdul Aziz al-Hakim 51.27%

Iyad Allawi 47.01

Moqtada al-Sadr 45.82

Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum 37.51

Hussein Hadi al-Sadr 35.70

Adnan Pachachi 33.09

Fuad Masoum 31.63

Masoud Barzani 31.06

Jalal Talabani 30.49

Salamah al-Khafaji 28.23

Hareth al-Dhari 25.26

Abdul Karim al-Muhammadawi 17.95

Ahmad Chalabi 15.07

Raja al-Khuzai 11.18

This list is remarkable for the number of clerics at the top. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Moqtada al-Sadr, Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, and Hussein al-Sadr are all Shi’ite clergymen. The most popular Sunni aside from Adnan Pachachi on this list (why didn’t they ask about President Ghazi al-Yawir? It is bizarre.) is Hareth al-Dhari, the Sunni cleri who leads the Association of Muslim Scholars. AMS is leading a boycott of the elections, though, otherwise al-Dhari is a shoo-in for a seat in parliament.

The other thing that is remarkable about the list is how it is split between anti-American and pro-American figures. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his arch nemesis radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are in a virtual tie for second place, behind al-Hakim. Although al-Hakim earlier cooperated with the Americans, he is increasingly bitter. He spoke out against the U.S. attack on Tel Afar, and today al-Jazeerah reports that he is threatening to reveal the details of Iraqi government torture of prisoners. Al-Dhari is anti-American, as well, though Hussein al-Sadr had dinner with Colin Powell and is a moderate, and Bahr al-Ulum served on the Interim Governing Council.

Anyway, for Moqtada al-Sadr to have a higher recognition rate than Iyad Allawi, and to have about the same level of support, is surely highly embarrassing to the Bush administration. For so many Shi’ite clerics to be at the top of the list is, likewise. These results were reported in the press (Robin Wright of the Washington Post clearly got access to all the slides or at least to people who had seen them). But it is highly unprofessional that IRI did not post the slides about the relative ranking of politicians to its Web site (or at least not to the obvious part of its Web site).

Since I am a fan of Dr. Raja’ al-Khuzai, I am sorry to see her numbers so low. Less than half of respondents recognized her name, and she did not place well (though perhaps well enough for a seat in parliament). These results are not surprising, since she led the charge last winter to stop the implementation of Islamic law in personal status matters in Iraq. Apparently that stand, though successful on the IGC, wasn’t very popular. (She is an obstetrician and headed a women’s hospital in Diwaniyah).

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