By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
BAGHDAD, Sept. 26 -- A strong majority of Iraqis want U.S.-led military forces to immediately withdraw from the country, saying their swift departure would make Iraq more secure and decrease sectarian violence, according to new polls by the State Department and independent researchers.
In Baghdad, for example, nearly three-quarters of residents polled said they would feel safer if U.S. and other foreign forces left Iraq, with 65 percent of those asked favoring an immediate pullout, according to State Department polling results obtained by The Washington Post.
Another new poll, scheduled to be released on Wednesday by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, found that 71 percent of Iraqis questioned want the Iraqi government to ask foreign forces to depart within a year. By large margins, though, Iraqis believed that the U.S. government would refuse the request, with 77 percent of those polled saying the United States intends keep permanent military bases in the country.
The stark assessments, among the most negative attitudes toward U.S.-led forces since they invaded Iraq in 2003, contrast sharply with views expressed by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Last week at the United Nations, President Jalal Talabani said coalition troops should remain in the country until Iraqi security forces are "capable of putting an end to terrorism and maintaining stability and security."
"Only then will it be possible to talk about a timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq," he said.
Recent polls show many Iraqis in nearly every part of the country disagree.
"Majorities in all regions except Kurdish areas state that the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) should withdraw immediately, adding that the MNF-I's departure would make them feel safer and decrease violence," concludes the 20-page State Department report, titled "Iraq Civil War Fears Remain High in Sunni and Mixed Areas." The report was based on 1,870 face-to-face interviews conducted from late June to early July.
The Program on International Policy Attitudes poll, which was conducted over the first three days of September for WorldPublicOpinion.org, found that support among Sunni Muslims for a withdrawal of all U.S.-led forces within six months dropped to 57 percent in September from 83 percent in January.
"There is a kind of softening of Sunni attitudes toward the U.S.," said Steven Kull, director of PIPA and editor of WorldPublicOpinion.org. "But you can't go so far as to say the majority of Sunnis don't want the U.S. out. They do. They're just not quite in the same hurry as they were before."
The PIPA poll, which has a margin of error of 3 percent, was carried out by Iraqis in all 18 provinces who conducted interviews with more than 1,000 randomly selected Iraqis in their homes.
Using complex sampling methods based on data from Iraq's Planning Ministry, the pollsters selected streets on which to conduct interviews. They then contacted every third house on the left side of the road. When they selected a home, the interviewers then collected the names and birth dates of everyone who lived there and polled the person with the most recent birthday.
Matthew Warshaw, a senior research manager at D3 Systems, which helped conduct the poll, said he didn't think Iraqis were any less likely to share their true opinions with pollsters than Americans. "It's a concern you run up against in Iowa or in Iraq," he said. "But for the most part we're asking questions that people want to give answers to. People want to have their voice heard."
The greatest risk, he said, was the safety of the interviewers. Two pollsters for another Iraqi firm were recently killed because of their work.
The State Department report did not give a detailed methodology for its poll, which it said was carried out by an unnamed Iraqi polling firm. Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said he could not comment on the public opinion surveys.
The director of another Iraqi polling firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared being killed, said public opinion surveys he conducted last month showed that 80 percent of Iraqis who were questioned favored an immediate withdrawal. Eight-five percent of Sunnis in that poll supported an immediate withdrawal, a number virtually unchanged in the past two years, except for the two months after the Samarra bombing, when the number fell to about 70 percent, the poll director said.
"The very fact that there is such a low support for American forces has to do with the American failure to do basically anything for Iraqis," said Mansoor Moaddel, a professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University, who commissioned a poll earlier this year that also found widespread support for a withdrawal. "It's part of human nature. People respect authority and power. But the U.S. so far has been unable to establish any real authority."
Interviews with two dozen Baghdad residents in recent weeks suggest one central cause for Iraqi distrust of the Americans: They believe the U.S. government has deliberately thrown the country into chaos.
The most common theory heard on the streets of Baghdad is that the American military is creating a civil war to create an excuse to keep its forces here.
"Do you really think it's possible that America -- the greatest country in the world -- cannot manage a small country like this?" Mohammad Ali, 42, an unemployed construction worker, said as he sat in his friend's electronics shop on a recent afternoon. "No! They have not made any mistakes. They brought people here to destroy Iraq, not to build Iraq."
As he drew on a cigarette and two other men in the store nodded in agreement, Ali said the U.S. government was purposely depriving the Iraqi people of electricity, water, gasoline and security, to name just some of the things that most people in this country often lack.
"They could fix everything in one hour if they wanted!" he said, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis.
Mohammed Kadhem al-Dulaimi, 54, a Sunni Arab who used to be a professional soccer player, said he thought the United States was creating chaos in the country as a pretext to stay in Iraq as long as it has stayed in Germany.
"All bad things that are happening in Iraq are just because of the Americans," he said, sipping a tiny cup of sweet tea in a cafe. "When should they leave? As soon as possible. Every Iraqi will tell you this."
Many Iraqi political leaders, on the other hand, have been begging the Americans to stay, especially since the February bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra, which touched off the current round of sectarian reprisal killings between Sunnis and Shiites.
The most dramatic about-face came from Sunni leaders, initially some of the staunchest opponents to the U.S. occupation, who said coalition forces were the only buffer preventing Shiite militias from slaughtering Sunnis.
Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the outspoken Sunni speaker of parliament who this summer said that "the U.S. occupation is the work of butchers," now supports the U.S. military staying in Iraq for as long as a decade.
"Don't let them go before they have corrected what they have done," he said in an interview this month. "They should stay for four years. This is the minimum. Maybe 10 years."
Particularly in mixed neighborhoods here in the capital, some Sunnis say the departure of U.S. forces could trigger a genocide. Hameed al-Kassi, 24, a recent college graduate who lives in the Yarmouk district of Baghdad, worried that rampages by Shiite militias could cause "maybe 60 to 70 percent of the Sunnis to be killed, even the women, old and the young."
"There will be lakes of blood," Kassi said. "Of course we want the Americans to leave, but if they do, it will be a great disaster for us."
In a barbershop in the capital's Karrada district Tuesday afternoon, a group of men discussed some of the paradoxical Iraqi opinions of coalition troops. They recognized that the departure of U.S.-led forces could trigger more violence, and yet they harbored deep-rooted anger toward the Americans.
"I really don't like the Americans who patrol on the street. They should all go away," said a young boy as he swept up hair on the shop's floor. "But I do like the one who guards my church. He should stay!"
Sitting in a neon-orange chair as he waited for a haircut, Firas Adnan, a 27-year-old music student, said: "I really don't know what I want. If the Americans leave right now, there is going to be a massacre in Iraq. But if they don't leave, there will be more problems. From my point of view, though, it would be better for them to go out today than tomorrow."
He paused for a moment, then said, "We just want to go back and live like we did before."