The dust left in the wake of U.S. forces departing from Iraq had barely settled when Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki intensified his crackdown against Sunni Arab leaders, deepening the country’s sectarian divide. While American leaders may speak glowingly of Iraq’s new democracy, all evidence points to serious problems on the road ahead. This can be discerned 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, we surveyed Iraqis to measure their attitudes toward the impact of the war and their concerns about the future of their country in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. We also polled Americans, Iranians, and Arabs from six countries on many of the same questions. From the data several observations can be made.
First and foremost are the divisions among Iraq’s three major groupings: Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds. In the United States, there is a deep partisan divide. And finally, there is a disconnect between the attitudes of Iraqis and their Arab neighbors.
All these patterns play out in response to almost every question asked in the poll. For example, when we ask "are Iraqis better off or worse off than they were before American forces entered the country?" we find that Iraqis are conflicted, with about one-half of both Shia and Sunni Arabs saying that they are “worse off,” while 60% of Kurds say they are “better off.” But on the U.S. side, 58% of Republicans say Iraqis are “better off” compared with only 24% of Democrats who hold this view. A striking 44% of all Americans either are “not sure” or say things are “the same.”
When we looked more closely at how the war has impacted many areas of life in Iraq, this division amongst the groups in Iraq and the political parties in the United States once again comes through quite clearly. Kurds, for example, say their lives have improved in every area considered. At the same time, overwhelming majorities of Sunni and Shia Arabs say that conditions have worsened. Judging from their respective views, it would appear that Republicans and Democrats are looking at two different wars, with Republicans tending to see the war’s impact as positive in every area, while Democrats largely judge the war as having made life worse for Iraqis.
Looking forward, Americans and Iraqis seem to agree, at least on the surface, that the departure of American forces from Iraq is a “good thing.” By a margin of two to one Iraqis say the withdrawal is positive, as do a strong majority Americans from both parties. But when we ask what emotion they feel when contemplating the departure of U.S. forces, this consensus breaks down. Three-quarters of Americans saying they are “happy” at the prospect of leaving Iraq. But this emotion is shared by only 22% of Iraqis, with another 35% saying they are worried and 30% saying they feel both emotions. The reasons for this mixed Iraqi mood can be seen when we look more closely at the concerns they have for the post-withdrawal period. Almost six in ten Iraqis say they are concerned about the possibility that the following might occur: “civil war,” “the country will split into parts,” “increased terrorism,” “economic deterioration,” and the fear that Iraq “may be dominated by a neighboring country.” U.S. 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 also be quite instructive. About one in five Iraqis wants a democracy and believes a democracy “will work” in their country. Another two in five say that they would like a democracy but they don’t “believe it will work.” At the same time, one in five “do not want a democracy” because they believe “it won’t work” in Iraq. Depending on how you add up these responses, it can either be said that six in ten Iraqis want their country to be a democracy, or six in ten Iraqis don’t believe that democracy will work in Iraq. This is the definition of being conflicted.
We asked Iraqis to evaluate their leaders and found that most are polarizing figures. Iraqi List coalition Iyad Allawi has the best overall rating of any Iraqi political figure receiving strong support from Sunni Arabs and Kurds. He, however, is not viewed favorably by Shia Arabs. The current Prime Minister, Nuri al Maliki, is more polarizing with quite limited support from Sunni Iraqis and Kurds. In fact his numbers across the board are strikingly similar to those received by cleric, Moqtada al Sadr, except that al Sadr does better among Shia, and receives approximately the same ratings as al Maliki among Sunni Arabs 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, suffered from terror and ethnic cleansing, and while the trappings of a democracy have been set-up, it remains in a gestational state. Iraqis appear to both want the occupation to end, but have great concerns about what will follow. The problem for them is that the American public wanted an end to this war, and, it appears, most of Iraq’s neighbors are neither equipped to help, nor would their help be welcomed. 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 in the country. America may want to wash its hands of the situation they leave behind, and Iraq’s neighbors may not want to face the real danger Iraq may pose for the region’s future, but Iraqis have legitimate concerns about the post-withdrawal period, and as we see unfolding before us, these concerns must be addressed before it is too late.