x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

America leaves an Iraq that is deeply unsure of itself

Opinion polls surveying Iraqis show a deeply ambivalent country divided along sectarian lines.

The dust left by US forces departing from Iraq had barely settled before Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki intensified his crackdown against Sunni leaders, deepening the country's sectarian divide. While US leaders may speak glowingly of Iraq's new democracy, all evidence points to serious problems ahead. This can be seen both from events on the ground and also from the results of our most recent poll of Iraqi public opinion.

In September 2011, in preparation for the Sir Bani Yas Forum, Zogby International surveyed Iraqis to measure their attitudes toward the impact of the war and their concerns about the future of the country after the US withdrawal. We also polled Americans, Iranians and Arabs from six other countries on many of the same questions. From the data, several observations can be made.

First and foremost are the persistent divisions among Iraq's three major groupings: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. In the United States, there is also a deep partisan divide. And finally, there is a disconnect between the attitudes of Iraqis and their Arab neighbours.

These patterns were apparent in responses to almost every question asked in the poll. For example, when we asked: "Are Iraqis better off or worse off than they were before American forces entered the country?" we found that Iraqis were conflicted, with about one-half of both Shiites and Sunnis saying that they were worse off, while 60 per cent of Kurds said they were better off.

In the US, 58 per cent of Republicans said Iraqis were better off compared to only 24 per cent of Democrats. A striking 44 per cent of all Americans either were not sure or said things were the same.

When we looked more closely at how the war had affected many areas of life in Iraq, this division among the groups in Iraq and the political parties in the United States once again came through quite clearly. Kurds, for example, said their lives had improved in every area considered. At the same time, overwhelming majorities of Sunnis and Shiites said that conditions had worsened. And judging from their views, it would appear that Republicans and Democrats were looking at two different wars, with Republicans tending to see the war's impact as positive in every area, while Democrats largely judged the war as having made life worse for Iraqis.

Looking forward, Americans and Iraqis seemed to agree, at least on the surface, that the departure of American forces from Iraq was a good thing. By a margin of two to one, Iraqis said the withdrawal is positive, as did a strong majority of Americans from both parties.

But three quarters of Americans said they were happy at the prospect of leaving Iraq, while only 22 per cent of Iraqis were happy with their prospects. Thirty-five per cent said they were worried and 30 per cent said they felt both emotions. The reasons for this mixed sentiment can be seen when we look more closely at the concerns they had about the post-withdrawal period.

Almost six in 10 Iraqis said they were concerned about civil war, increased terrorism, economic deterioration, and the possibilities that the country would be dominated by a neighbour or split into separate parts. US attitudes toward each of these concerns might best be described as ambivalent, with only "increased terrorism" registering.

Examining how Iraqis view issues close to home can be quite instructive. About one in five Iraqis wanted a democracy and believed a democracy would work in their country. About two in five said that they would like a democracy but they didn't believe it would work. Another one in five did not want a democracy because they believed it wouldn't work. Depending on how you add up these responses, it can either be said that six in 10 Iraqis want their country to be a democracy, or six in 10 Iraqis don't believe that democracy will work. This is the definition of being conflicted.

We asked Iraqis to evaluate their leaders and found that most were polarising figures. Iraqiyya's Iyad Allawi had the best overall rating of any political figure, receiving strong support from Sunnis and Kurds. He, however, was not viewed favourably by Shiites. Mr Al Maliki was more polarising with very limited support from Sunnis and Kurds. In fact his numbers across the board were strikingly similar to those received by Moqtada Al Sadr, who did better among Shiites, and received approximately the same ratings as Mr Al Maliki among Sunnis and only slightly worse among Kurds.

The bottom line is that America leaves an Iraq that is deeply divided. After decades of ruthless rule, Iraqis endured an invasion and occupation, and suffered from terrorism and ethnic cleansing. While the trappings of a democracy have been set up, the political system remains in a gestational state.

Iraqis appear to both want the occupation to end, and have great concern about what will follow. The problem is that the US public wanted an end to this war and, it appears, most of Iraq's neighbours are ill-equipped to help and would not be welcome anyway.

An additional problem, of course, was the troubled outcome of the last election, which left Iraq with a leader who is not supported by many. The United States may want to wash its hands of the situation, and Iraq's neighbours may not want to face the real danger Iraq could pose to the region's future, but Iraqis have legitimate concerns about the post-withdrawal period. As we see these problems unfold, they must be addressed before it is too late.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute