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The voice of Baghdad

Peter Kellner analyses the first systematic opinion poll of Iraq, and finds a population full of anxiety — but also convinced that war has made their future brighter

19 July 2003

12:00 AM

19 July 2003

12:00 AM

Peter Kellner analyses the first systematic opinion poll of Iraq, and finds a population full of anxiety — but also convinced that war has made their future brighter

Baghdad is on a knife edge. Three in four of its residents say the city is now more dangerous than when Saddam Hussein was in power. Two in three fear being attacked in the street. Most think that we went to war to grab Iraq’s oil and/or to help Israel. Yet despite these deep concerns, only a minority oppose the American and British invasion, and as few as one in eight want the invaders to leave the country straight away. They want the occupying troops to restore normality and then hand the country back to the Iraqis. In effect, the people of Baghdad are telling the Americans, ‘You say you came to make our lives better. You need to prove you can — and fast.’

Altogether we questioned 798 people last week in all parts of Baghdad. We cannot pretend that our figures are perfect. There are no reliable demographic statistics with which to compare our data. However, we sought to interview broadly equal numbers of men and women in all parts of the city, to obtain a wide spread of age groups, religious affiliations and social backgrounds. In general, we found relatively little difference in the views of different groups. We believe that, as far as is feasible in the circumstances, we have captured the mood of Baghdad at a crucial time in its history — and, indeed, ours.

We started by asking the basic question: was the war against Saddam’s regime right or wrong? Fifty per cent said ‘right’, while just 27 per cent said ‘wrong’. However, 23 per cent declined to offer an opinion. This does not appear to be because of reticence. Respondents were generally keen to give their views, and on most questions there were few ‘don’t knows’. It looks as if, for a significant minority of the people of Baghdad, the jury is still out on whether the war was worthwhile. If most of these people can be won over, then — and only then — will it be possible for the Americans to claim that a large majority of the people of Iraq’s capital are on their side.

What must the Americans (and the British, for that matter) do? One urgent need is to convince Iraqis that their cause was just. We offered a list of five possible reasons for the war, and asked people to identify the most important. The top two by a mile were ‘to secure oil supplies’ (47 per cent) and ‘to help Israel’ (41 per cent). Just 23 per cent said our aim was ‘to liberate the people of Iraq’, while 7 per cent said ‘to protect Kuwait’. The formal reason for going to war, ‘to find and destroy weapons of mass destruction’, came last. Just 6 per cent think that this was America’s and Britain’s main motive.


What, though, do the people of Baghdad think of the Americans today, three months after they occupied their city? More people feel friendly (26 per cent) than hostile (18 per cent), but fully 50 per cent feel ‘neither friendly nor hostile’. GIs might feel relieved to learn that only 9 per cent of Baghdadians say they are ‘very hostile’ — but this small percentage amounts to about 250,000 adults. It would take only a tiny proportion of these to be armed, angry and willing to act to make life a continuing misery for the occupying forces.

We pressed the issue a little further: ‘If you had to choose, would you rather live under Saddam or the Americans?’ The good news is that very few want Saddam back — just 7 per cent. The bad news is that fewer than one in three (29 per cent) positively favour the Americans. As many as 46 per cent express no preference. There is plainly a lot of work to be done to convert relief that Saddam has gone into support for America’s strategy to build a new Iraq.

One reason is that just 32 per cent say that everyday life is better now than it was a year ago. Twice as many say it is either just as bad (16 per cent) or actually worse (47 per cent). Indeed, one respondent in four told us that it is much worse. This bleak mood even extends to many of those who say we were right to go to war. Just half say that life is now better, while one in three of the pro-war camp say life is now worse.

Asked to list the biggest day-to-day problems ‘affecting you personally’, an unsurprising 80 per cent mention power cuts. More alarming is the 67 per cent who fear the danger of being attacked in the streets. Fifty per cent also fear being attacked at home or at work. Other widespread concerns include the lack of clean water, doctors and medical supplies. No wonder that fully 75 per cent say Iraq is more dangerous than it was before the war (including 54 per cent who say it is ‘much more dangerous’). Just 14 per cent reckon the country is safer.

Yet there are signs of cautious optimism, especially about the long term. By almost three-to-one, Baghdadians expect life to be better (43 per cent) rather than worse (16 per cent) in one year’s time than it was before the war. Looking five years ahead, optimists outnumber pessimists by five to one (54 to 11 per cent).

By then, most people hope that the occupation will be over; but, despite the criticisms, fears and acute day-to-day problems, only 13 per cent want the American and British troops to leave immediately. As many as 76 per cent want them to stay for the time being — with a majority, 56 per cent, wanting them to remain for at least 12 months.

That does not mean that our respondents want to put off the day when the Iraqis once more rule themselves. As many as 71 per cent want power handed over within 12 months. But what kind of government do the Iraqis want? Our poll offered six choices. The most popular is Western-style democracy with competing parties. This was chosen by 36 per cent. But 50 per cent opted for one of the five variants of Islamic, presidential or single-party rule.

This suggests that the battle to make Baghdad a less fearful city where normal life can resume is vital not just for the immediate future but for the longer-term task of rebuilding civil society. Without clean water, reliable electricity and safe streets, democracy is unlikely to be achieved — or even wanted.

Peter Kellner is chairman of YouGov.


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