By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006
As violence continues in Iraq, the military is looking for ways to achieve stability through opinion polls and public relations.
The Multi-National Command in Baghdad wants to hire a private firm to conduct polling and focus groups in Iraq "to assess the effectiveness of operations as they relate to gaining and maintaining popular support," according to a notice the Department of the Army posted yesterday.
"Since the end of major combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Coalition Forces have sought to build robust and positive relations with the people of Iraq and to assist the Iraqi people in forming a new government," the notice says, posted on the government contracting Web site FBODaily.com.
Polling and focus groups are being sought as "important tools for assessing changes in the level of a population's support for various groups," according to the posting.
Polling in Iraq is so sensitive that the contract proposal states that the winner must ensure those being questioned "are not aware of the survey sponsor's identity." One member of a firm that has conducted polling for the Baghdad command said yesterday that "if someone out there believes the client is the U.S. government, the persons doing the polling could get killed." The official insisted on anonymity for fear of putting his company's employees at risk.
Word of the proposed new contract comes a day after release of a State Department poll that found that majorities in all regions of Iraq, except the Kurdish areas, want U.S. and allied troops to withdraw immediately and that their departure would make people feel safer. It also follows the release of an April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism that found that U.S. military action has become a "cause celebre" in the Arab world and has fueled anti-American feelings in Iraq and the Middle East.
The Baghdad command also confirmed yesterday that it has awarded a two-year, $12.4 million contact to handle strategic communications management to the Lincoln Group, the Washington-based public relations company found late last year to have been paying money to place favorable articles in the Iraqi news media.
William Dixon, a spokesman for the Lincoln Group, said yesterday he could not comment on the details of particular contracts and deferred comment to the Baghdad command.
Lincoln was the lowest of seven bidders on what was estimated as a $20 million contract to help military commanders in Baghdad get what they considered the positive side of their operations in the news, according to one of the bidders who was briefed on the contract. The contract calls for providing media strategy such as setting up news conferences and public speeches, media training for Iraqi government officials in addition to military commanders, and monitoring of Middle East and some U.S. news outlets, including The Washington Post, New York Times and major television networks. The monitoring would include creating a database of articles graded as favorable or unfavorable.
Lincoln's practices have attracted controversy, most recently because of a report in the current issue of Harper's Magazine. In it, Willem Marx, an Oxford University student, describes working for Lincoln in Baghdad last summer and using a spreadsheet listing amounts charged by Iraqi newspapers to run articles written by Army personnel, at costs that ran from $50 to $1,500.
At least one of the bidders who lost to Lincoln is considering a challenge to the award based on Lincoln's record.
Lincoln's spokesman dismissed the article's claims. "The former intern's exaggerated and misleading account does not accurately depict the firm's activities in the emerging markets and challenging environments," Dixon said.