Most Iraqis Doubt US Will Ever Leave

WASHINGTON – Large majorities of Iraqis believe that the United States has no intention of ever withdrawing all its military forces from their country and that Washington’s reconstruction efforts have been incompetent at best, according to a new survey [.pdf] released here Tuesday.

At the same time, however, only 35 percent of Iraqis – most of them Sunni Arabs – believe coalition forces should withdraw within six months, although if they did so, majorities said it would have a beneficial impact, as many prominent Democrats and other war critics here have argued.

Skepticism about U.S. plans in Iraq is particularly pronounced among the country’s Sunni population, who were far more negative about virtually every aspect of post-invasion Iraq than their counterparts in the Shia and Kurdish communities, which together are believed to account for 75-80 percent of the country’s population.

Indeed, despite the strong Sunni Arab participation in December’s parliamentary elections, a whopping 88 percent of the community approves of "attacks on U.S.-led forces" in Iraq, with 77 percent voicing "strong approval" – a level of hostility that presents a serious challenge for U.S. officials now negotiating with Sunni insurgent leaders, as reported in the Feb. 6 issue of Newsweek magazine.

By comparison, 41 percent of Shi’ites said they approved such attacks, while 16 percent of Kurds, by far the most pro-U.S. of the three groups, agreed.

The survey, the latest in a series that has probed Iraqi opinion since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, was designed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland for WorldPublicOpinion.org and conducted through face-to-face interviews of 1,150 randomly selected Iraqi adults in all 18 Iraqi provinces in early January, three weeks after the December elections.

While Sunni Arabs were overrepresented in the sample, the data was weighted according to each group’s actual estimated share of the total Iraqi population: Shia Arab, 55 percent; Sunni Arab, 22 percent; Kurd, 18 percent; and other groups, 5 percent.

The survey results, which come amid intensified jockeying in Baghdad over the constitution of a new government, are a mixed bag for the administration of President George W. Bush.

His approval ratings in the U.S. have fallen dangerously over the past year, in substantial part due to the perception that he lacks a viable plan for "success" in Iraq, even as he rejects pressure by Democrats and prominent members of the foreign policy establishment to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of the 140,000 U.S. troops there.

The survey found considerable skepticism about Bush’s frequent promises not to maintain U.S. military forces in Iraq "a day longer" than is necessary for ensuring its stability.

Eighty percent of respondents said they believe the U.S. intends to maintain permanent military bases in Iraq, including 79 percent of Shia Arabs, 92 percent of Sunnis, and two-thirds of Kurds, some of whose leaders have quietly suggested that Washington would be welcome to establish bases in Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

More than three of four respondents (76 percent) said Washington would also reject a request by any Iraqi government that emerges from last month’s elections to withdraw its forces within six months. Two-thirds of Shi’ites said Bush would refuse to do so; 77 percent of Kurds and a nearly unanimous 94 percent of Sunni Arabs agreed.

The survey also found broad support for the conclusions of an all-party November conference convened by the Arab League, which, with the apparent encouragement of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has tried to mediate among the various Iraqi communities in order to prevent the country from disintegrating and to hasten an eventual withdrawal.

The conclusions on which all parties agreed included a rejection of terrorist methods, particularly against civilians; the inclusion of all groups in the political process; and the establishment of a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

Despite the approval, particularly in the Sunni community, of attacks against U.S.-led forces in Iraq, the survey found nearly 99 percent rejection of terrorist methods and 97 percent approval for an inclusive political process. It also found 87 percent support for establishing a timetable for withdrawal, although Kurds were substantially less supportive of the idea than the other two groups.

Among those who support a timetable, however, opinion was evenly split at 35 percent favoring a withdrawal deadline of six months and the same percentage preferring a "gradual" withdrawal over two years. The finding was consistent with a November BBC poll that found that two-thirds of Iraqis opposed "the presence of coalition forces in Iraq," although that poll did not ask how long they wanted the forces to remain.

The shorter period was most popular among Sunnis, 83 percent of whom opted for the six-month option. By contrast, only 22 percent of Shia respondents favored the six-month plan, while 49 percent preferred the two-year period. A majority of 57 percent of Kurds said foreign forces should leave only when the situation improves.

Ironically, 41 percent of respondents who approve of attacks against U.S.-led forces said they did not prefer the shorter timetable.

"One possible explanation is that the attacks are not prompted by a desire to bring about an immediate withdrawal, but to put pressure on the U.S. so that it will eventually leave," said PIPA director Steven Kull, who pointed to the prevailing skepticism over Bush’s promise to withdraw U.S. troops as soon as Iraqi forces can take their place.

He said 90 percent of those who approve of attacks against U.S.-led forces believe Washington wants to have permanent bases in Iraq.

At the same time, majorities of Iraqis said they believed that certain key conditions that fuel insecurity and fears of civil war would improve. Two-thirds said the day-to-day security of ordinary citizens would increase. Sixty-one percent said inter-ethnic violence and the presence of foreign fighters would decline.

Nearly three in four voiced confidence that contending factions would be more likely to cooperate, and two-thirds said key public services would improve and crime would decline.

In each case, Sunni Arabs were distinctly more optimistic than the other two major groups. Kurds, on the other hand, were most doubtful.

Differences between the three groups were even more marked in their assessments of the current political situation. While two-thirds of all Iraqis said the December elections were free and fair and the new parliament will be "the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people," more than nine out of every 10 Sunnis disagreed with both propositions.

The survey found Sunnis in general to be much more negative about the future. While nearly two-thirds of the whole sample said Iraq is headed in the "right direction" – a sharp increase compared to 49 percent who said so in a pre-election survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) last November – 93 percent of Sunnis said it was going in the wrong direction.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.