- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

The fog of war is even obscuring popular opinion in Iraq, as two major polls yesterday gave sharply opposing views on public attitudes four years after the U.S.-led invasion to depose Saddam Hussein.

An extensive survey published by the Sunday Times of London found that Iraqis strongly prefer their current leadership to life under Saddam, favor a united Iraq and do not think the country is in the midst of a sectarian civil war. The poll found that Iraqis, by a 2-to-1 margin, think President Bush’s plans to bolster U.S. forces in Baghdad and other problem areas will work.

But a second poll, this one backed in part by USA Today and the British Broadcasting Corp., found that a majority of Iraqis are pessimistic about the country’s prospects. Nearly 70 percent think the presence of U.S. and foreign forces in the country is making the security situation worse, not better.

The dueling studies illustrate the difficulties and dangers of gauging public attitudes in Iraq, where the capital Baghdad and other major cities face massive security problems.

Judy Van Rest is executive vice president of the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), which has conducted several nationwide opinion surveys in Iraq since 2003.

“In some of the governates, it is relatively easy to do polling, but there are parts of the country where it’s just too dangerous to get good data,” she said. “When you do reach Iraqis, they tend to be very open to answering questions, but there are serious security problems in some areas.”

IRI is not planning any nationwide polls because of the security problems in Iraq, she said.

The fourth anniversary of the war brought new violence in Baghdad and other parts of the country yesterday, after a weekend in which at least seven U.S. troops were killed.

Bombs blew apart a Shi’ite mosque in the Shorja market neighborhood of Baghdad, killing at least eight worshippers and wounding 32 others. In the tense, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, Sunni Muslim insurgents were suspected in a string of bomb attacks that killed 18 persons and wounded 50.

The Associated Press reported that at least 55 Iraqis were killed or found dead across the country, including the mayor of a Shi’ite village near Baghdad.

Despite the carnage, the London newspaper said in an editorial that its poll represented a “turning point for Iraq,” challenging the dominant press story line that the war has been a disaster.

The poll “shows a country which is far more optimistic than anyone would have expected,” the paper said.

“The current American troop surge appears to have been a considerable success in reducing levels of violence, again contrary to conventional wisdom,” the editorial noted. “True, it may be temporary, but it is working.”

Even the USA Today poll found that, by a slight 43 percent to 36 percent margin, Iraqis prefer the situation today to life under Saddam, but the number of optimists is down sharply from previous surveys.

The Times’ survey was conducted and funded by the established British polling firm Opinion Research Business. About 400 interviewers questioned 5,019 adult Iraqis from across the country in mid-February. The paper said the poll had a margin of error of 1.4 percentage points.

The USA Today/BBC survey, also sponsored by ABC News and the German ARD-TV network, interviewed 2,212 Iraqis between Feb. 25 and March 3 and had a statistical margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

The Times’ poll found that 49 percent of Iraqis preferred life under current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while 26 percent said life was better under Saddam. Just 27 percent of Iraqis think the country is in a civil war, although among Iraqi Sunnis, that figure rises to 41 percent.

By contrast, the USA Today poll found that 35 percent of Iraqis expressed optimism that things would improve this year, down from 64 percent in a 2005 survey.

Both polls repeatedly showed sharp divides between Sunnis and Shi’ites. In the USA Today/BBC poll, about 60 percent of Iraqi Shi’ites — heavily persecuted under Saddam — thought their lives had improved since 2003, while 8 percent of Sunnis agreed.


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