We hear a lot today about Iraq’s extremists. The American people know very little, though, about what ordinary Iraqis think. Having tracked the large, often silent, middle of Iraqi opinion over recent months, I suggest there is much to be encouraged about in the recent evolution of Iraqi views — particularly the views of the rising Shi’ite majority.
I was an embedded reporter during the Iraq war and became concerned upon returning that the anecdotal temperature-takings Americans relied on for their assessments of Iraq might be incomplete and misleading. Searching for more reliable hard information, I eventually wrote the first scientific poll of Iraqi opinion, carried out by the magazine I edit, the American Enterprise, in concert with Zogby International.
It was not easy, but we collected data in four different Iraqi cities during August. (A summary of the results, published in the just-released December 2003 issue of the American Enterprise, can be found at TAEmag.com.)
There have actually now been four substantial polls in Iraq. Besides our own, there was one by Gallup in September, one for the London Spectator by the well-established British firm YouGOV and one by an Iraqi academic. Though these efforts varied widely in methodology and geographic coverage, their results are reassuringly congruent. In all of them, the Iraqi public turns out to be surprisingly optimistic, unambiguously glad to be free of Saddam, and quite willing to have U.S. troops stay in their country for a year or more to help them get launched on a new footing.
For instance: Two-thirds of Iraqis say getting rid of Saddam has been worth any resultant hardships. Fully 61 percent have a favorable view of the Governing Council — and, by 50 percent to 14 percent, they say it is doing a better job than two months ago. An informal late-October New York Times street poll of residents of Baghdad (the least secure part of Iraq) “showed that about 85 percent felt that safety had increased in the last two months, and 60 percent felt that the Americans were doing a good job,” according to the Times.
What does this mean? It tells us we are doing much better at winning the hearts and minds of everyday Iraqis than many of us realize.
The Iraqi public is not nearly so fanatical, seething or disgusted with the United States as local extremists would have us believe. In addition, the survey research we did at the American Enterprise suggests that none of the three major nightmare scenarios for Iraq are likely to come to pass:
c First, there will be no Ba’athist revival. Our evidence shows Saddam and his cronies are enormously unpopular in the country.
c Second, al Qaeda-style organizations are unlikely to proliferate in the new Iraq. We asked Iraqis what they think of Osama bin Laden, and 57 percent of those with an opinion view him unfavorably, with fully 41 percent of them saying their view is very unfavorable. As foreign jihadists murder increasing numbers of Iraqi civilians, Iraqi police and Iraqi popular figures, I expect resentment toward al Qaeda-style groups will grow wider.
Third, I believe the nightmare scenario can be dispatched of an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. Iraqis are quite secular — 43 percent told us they had not attended Friday prayer even once within the previous month. And when we asked directly whether they would like to have an Islamic government, Iraqis told us “no” by 60 percent to 33 percent.
Interestingly, on almost every question the Shi’ites — who comprise nearly two-thirds of all Iraqis, fall on the more moderate side of Iraqi opinion. They are, for example, much less likely than others to want a theocratic government, more favorable toward democracy, much more unfriendly to Osama bin Laden, and more likely to pick the U.S. as the best model for a new Iraqi state. And under any democratic regime these Shi’ites will be running Iraq.
Survey research, of course, has its limits, but recent behavioral evidence has also produced encouraging signs of maturity and moderation among both the leadership and the rank-and-file of Iraqi Shi’ites. The first big test came after the murder of Ayatollah Bakr Hakim (and scores of innocent bystanders) outside one of Islam’s holiest mosques in Najaf. More than 300,000 mourners attended the funeral in September, which could easily have turned into a rampage against other Iraqis or American troops. Instead, the Shi’ite faithful showed a willingness to patiently await the official investigation into the crime.
Then at the end of October, American forces and Iraqi police clamped down on the radical Shi’ite cleric Moktada Sadr. Though Sadr’s militiamen had killed Iraqi policemen and American soldiers and forcibly seized government and religious buildings, coalition forces moved gingerly against him because of uncertainty as to his popular following. As it turns out, the disarming and arrest of Sadr acolytes was cheered loudly by other Shi’ites, who repudiated the cleric’s radicalism. The street demonstrations and popular revolt Sadr threatened in response fizzled completely.
An even more recent bit of evidence of Shi’ite willingness to help remake Iraq was the composed reaction of Mouwafak Rabii, a Shi’ite member of the Iraqi Governing Council, to the bombing of the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad. Rather than blame the U.S., he suggested American troops get tougher on the insurgents operating in the Sunni Triangle.
The pouncing raids launched in recent months by American soldiers have killed or arrested many guerrillas. (The bounty paid to induce attacks on U.S. soldiers has reportedly had to be raised from $1,000 to $5,000 to find takers.) In addition to the U.S. troops and 25,000 third-country soldiers, there are now a fast-increasing 90,000 Iraqi security personnel helping police the country, with many more Iraqi police and soldiers in the pipeline. Just a few months into a new regime, it is already Iraqis who are bearing most of the casualties from guerrilla attacks. That will increasingly put the insurgents on the wrong side of Iraqi opinion.
The several thousand extremists conducting murder and sabotage in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle have no chance of winning militarily; their only accomplishment is to create chaos. The insurgents are strictly a negative force, who can only hope to slow Iraq’s steady climb toward recovery.
Finding they usually die when they fight American soldiers, they have taken to preying mostly on weak and innocent targets like Red Cross buildings, mosques and humanitarian agencies. This is a desperate and retrograde military strategy that will win them no friends.
The insurgents have no platform, no winning message, no identifiable leaders. There is no evidence they enjoy any widespread support. They are simply well-armed fringe fanatics. Many of them are foreign. All are leftovers of old Arab power blocs. They are feared by many Iraqis, but not broadly respected, trusted or liked.
In short, they are political criminals. And as the months pass, they will find it hard to swim and hide among the Iraqi public.
A psychological contest is under way for Iraqi loyalties. On one side are remnants of an unpopular regime, reinforced by unpopular foreigners, who merely wreck and kill in ugly ways, especially at religious and humanitarian sites, frequently on holy days, with most of the victims being innocent Iraqis.
On the other side are American forces who have, on the whole, been quite gentle and forbearing. (My new book on the war is full of firsthand observations of this gentleness.) And any day now, those American forces will get a multibillion-dollar infusion of aid from the U.S. and other countries that will allow them to demonstrate to average Iraqis even more clearly who is on the side of progress, modernity, prosperity and human decency, and who is not.
And you know what? That’s a pretty good position from which to prosecute a war against minority guerrillas.
No guerrilla war is easy. But there is no Ho Chi Minh trail pumping fresh poison into Iraq, and with each passing season there will be fewer weapons in the hands of fewer guerrillas with less and less money to spend.
And, meanwhile, new economic and political freedoms will be unfolding across the countryside — cell phones today, open elections tomorrow. These innovations will cumulatively amount to a social, economic and political revolution. One that will make the blood-feuding insurgents look more and more unattractive to normal Iraqis with each passing week.
Karl Zinsmeister is author of “Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq” and editor in chief of The American Enterprise magazine. An earlier version of this was presented as testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Oct. 29.
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