- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Iraqis overwhelmingly reject a breakup of their country along religious or ethnic lines and see some hope for progress with the formation of the new unity government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to a nationwide poll being released today.

The mid-June survey of nearly 3,000 Iraqis, conducted for the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), found that 78 percent of Iraqis either disagree or “strongly disagree” with the idea of segregating the country by religious or ethnic sect.

Large majorities in both Sunni and Shi’ite Arab regions of the country rejected the idea, while reaction was more mixed in the Kurdish-dominated north.

About 55 percent of Iraqis approved of the job Mr. al-Maliki had done in his first month, compared with 20 percent who disapproved and an additional 25 percent who had no opinion or declined to answer.

The polling was conducted immediately after Mr. al-Maliki announced a major security crackdown but before the latest wave of ethnic violence, which included more than 100 people killed in the past two days.

Of those polled, 89 percent said the formation of a national government including the country’s main ethnic and religious communities was “extremely important to the future peace and stability of Iraq.”

“The polls show the security and economic situations remain dire, but even so, there is a lot of hope among ordinary Iraqis about the future,” said IRI Executive Vice President Judy Van Rest. “Through everything that’s gone on, there’s a strong feeling that the country should stay together.”

The formation of the unity government in May, after lengthy political horse-trading, and the June 7 killing of al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi appear to have boosted public confidence, despite the daily toll of violence.

By a 41 percent to 35 percent margin, Iraqis said they thought the country was “headed in the right direction” — a reversal from a survey in late March.

At that time, a record-high 52 percent said the country was headed in the wrong direction compared with 35 percent who said it was going in the right direction.

A grim round of violence yesterday included the assassination of a leading Shi’ite militia leader, the death of a U.S. soldier in a bombing south of Baghdad and a suicide bombing attack, which killed 59 persons and wounded 132 others in the central market of the southern Shi’ite city of Kufa. It was one of the deadliest such strikes this year.

In a report released yesterday, a U.N. team estimated that nearly 5,900 Iraqi civilians had been killed by violence in the past two months, saying there was an “upward trend” in such deaths, particularly in Baghdad.

The IRI poll offered ammunition for optimists and pessimists over the future of Iraq.

While the al-Maliki government enjoyed strong numbers overall, nearly 80 percent of respondents in the largely Sunni region around Kirkuk and Mosul said they were “very unconfident” that the new government would succeed.

Fifty-nine percent overall rated the country’s economic situation as “poor,” and 75 percent gave the same rating for Iraq’s overall security.

Iraqis did not see the death of Zarqawi as a clear turning point in the fight against the insurgency: Just 47 percent predicted his death would lead to a reduction in sectarian fighting, while 39 percent said it would not make a difference in the level of violence.

The poll was conducted between June 14 and June 24, and included 2,849 face-to-face interviews in all 18 Iraqi provinces. IRI officials said the margin of error for the polling data was three percentage points.

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