Mark Riley

‘We just want to ask people a few questions,’

The first poll from the war zone.

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'We just want to ask people a few questions,’ we said, innocently clutching our pollster’s clipboards. The GI didn’t know whether to laugh or give us a slap. ‘You’re out of your heads. Don’t even think of leaving the Palestine Hotel. I’ve been in every kind of war situation you can imagine, and this is the most dangerous — because there are no rules. It’s completely unpredictable. Now they’ve taken to CQAs (close-quarter assassinations). It’s open season on Westerners.’

A month earlier, the editor of The Spectator had asked YouGov to conduct a poll in Iraq. Our reaction had been the same as the GI’s: he must be crazy. Apart from the danger, as Internet-based pollsters, the idea of polling in a country where the telephones still don’t work was unthinkable. But week after week, he came back to us, refusing to take no for an answer. ‘You have a fundamental responsibility here,’ he said.

He was right. It was something that had to be done. YouGov operates on the principle that high-quality public-opinion research should play a central part in the decision-making process. People with the power to shape our world need to understand the views of everyone affected, and be responsive to them. And nowhere in the world right now is public opinion as important as in Iraq. If America and Britain are prepared, in the name of its citizens, to invade a country and overthrow its government, we must understand them. If we truly want to build a better future for Iraqis, we must listen to them first.

So yes, somehow we had to do the poll. But we also had to be realistic. Even non-military foreigners were coming under attack. A journalist had just been shot dead at the University of Baghdad. Our contacts within the city were telling us that Saddam’s friends had put up a $5,000 bounty for every Westerner killed. Not ideal conditions for conducting an opinion poll.

We clearly couldn’t poll right across Iraq: we decided to concentrate just on Baghdad. We would do the best we could with conventional methodology in a seriously unconventional setting: we packed flak jackets along with a thousand copies of the survey.

There were three of us from YouGov (one a native Arabic-speaker, born in Iraq) flying to Kuwait, hiring a car, and driving unprotected across the desert via Nasiriya to Baghdad. On our second day, we went to Baghdad University to see the dean, who approved the survey and helped us recruit eight interviewers from two of his departments. Channel 4 News, who are co-sponsors of this poll, filmed us training them. Perhaps ‘training’ isn’t the right word — certainly it wasn’t up to the standards the Market Research Society would expect — but at least we took them through the basics.

The poll was conducted at 20 locations across Baghdad, with YouGov driving around to monitor progress. Some were by face-to-face interview, some by supervised self-completion. Watching the people of Baghdad set out their views was exhilarating; but the exhilaration jostled with fear. We heard gunfire or explosions nearly every hour. At one point a machine-gun was lifted in the air and several rounds fired off — which can mean a signal to fellow-terrorists that Westerners are in the area. We disappeared. Occasionally our interviewers were threatened, in one case with a gun.

Nevertheless, we achieved our objectives. We polled people in 20 different parts of the city, in areas rich and poor. We questioned men and women, young and old, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, university graduates and people with little schooling. We believe we have listened to as good a cross-section of the population of Baghdad as the less-than-perfect conditions allowed; confident also that they were giving us their authentic views. Our conversations in the bars in the evening confirmed the data set out in the tables: that people were in favour of the US/British action, but that their high hopes for a better life — promised in leaflets that had been dropped from the sky — were floundering. Why was it taking the US so long to get things back to normal? Frustration was edging close to outright anger. They are at the end of their patience. The city might tip into violence at any time.

We were struck by how keen Baghdadians were to express themselves: when the survey interview was over, it was sometimes difficult to disengage from a stream of additional comments. Far from being nervous about being interviewed, they wanted to say more and more. This place seems ripe for some kind of democracy.

After collecting 800 completed surveys in three days, we were relieved to be heading back to Kuwait, again unprotected and alone in an old car on an eerily empty road. The worst moment was when we were trapped for a few hours in a sandstorm — this, we were told, is when attackers are most likely to swoop. The day before, a Western aid SUV had been ambushed and all the occupants killed. But the storm passed, and we got to the border, our boot filled with the first real evidence of how the citizens of Baghdad feel about the war and the future — and probably the first poll ever conducted by an independent Western agency in what is still a war zone.