By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of "occupying forces" as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S. military last month.
That is good news, according to a military analysis of the results. At the very least, analysts optimistically concluded, the findings indicate that Iraqis hold some "shared beliefs" that may eventually allow them to surmount the divisions that have led to a civil war.
Conducting the focus groups, in 19 separate sessions organized by outside contractors in five cities, is among the ways in which Multi-National Force-Iraq assesses conditions in the country beyond counting insurgent attacks, casualties and weapons caches. The command, led by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, devotes more time and resources than any other government or independent entity to measuring various matters, including electricity, satisfaction with trash collection and what Iraqis think it will take for them to get along.
The results are analyzed and presented to Petraeus as part of the daily Battle Update Assessment or BUA (pronounced boo-ah). Some of the news has been unarguably good, including the sharply reduced number of roadside bombings and attacks on civilians. But bad news is often presented with a bright side, such as the focus-group results and a November poll, which found that 25 percent of Baghdad residents were satisfied with their local government and that 15 percent said they had enough fuel for heating and cooking.
The good news? Those numbers were higher than the figures of the previous month (18 percent and 9 percent, respectively).
And Iraqi complaints about matters other than security are seen as progress. Early this year, Maj. Fred Garcia, an MNF-I analyst, said that "a very large percentage of people would answer questions about security by saying 'I don't know.' Now, we get more griping because people feel freer."
Iraqi political reconciliation, quality-of-life issues and the economy are largely the responsibility of the State Department. But the military, to the occasional consternation of U.S. diplomats who feel vastly outnumbered, has its own "mirror agencies" in many areas. Officers in charge of civil-military operations, said senior Petraeus adviser Army Col. William E. Rapp, "can tell you how many markets are open in Baghdad, how many shops, how many banks are open. . . . We have a lot more people" on the ground.
On Iraqi politics, "we have four to six slides almost every morning on 'Where does the Iraqi government stand on de-Baathification legislation?' All these things are embassy things," Rapp said. But Petraeus is interested in "his 'feel' for a situation, and he gets that from a bunch of different data points," he added.
Even though members of the military "understand the limitations" of polling data, Rapp said, "subjective measures" are an important part of the mix. In July, the military signed a contract with Gallup for four public opinion polls a month in Iraq: three nationwide and one in Baghdad. Lincoln Group, which has conducted surveys for the military since shortly after the invasion, received a year-long contract in January to conduct focus groups.
Outside of the military, some of the most widespread polling in Iraq has been done by D3 Systems, a Virginia-based company that maintains offices in each of Iraq's 18 provinces. Its most recent publicly released surveys, conducted in September for several news media organizations, showed the same widespread Iraqi belief voiced by the military's focus groups: that a U.S. departure will make things better. A State Department poll in September 2006 reported a similar finding.
Matthew Warshaw, a senior research manager at D3, said that despite security improvements, polling in Iraq remains difficult. "While violence has gone down, one of the ways it has been achieved is by effectively separating people. That means mobility is limited, with roadblocks by the U.S. and Iraqi military or local militias," Warshaw said in an interview.
Most of the recent survey results he has seen about political reconciliation, Warshaw said, are "more about [Iraqis] reconciling with the United States within their own particular territory, like in Anbar. . . . But it doesn't say anything about how Sunni groups feel about Shiite groups in Baghdad."
Warshaw added: "In Iraq, I just don't hear statements that come from any of the Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish groups that say 'We recognize that we need to share power with the others, that we can't truly dominate.' "
According to a summary report of the focus-group findings obtained by The Washington Post, Iraqis have a number of "shared beliefs" about the current situation that cut across sectarian lines. Participants, in separate groups of men and women, were interviewed in Ramadi, Najaf, Irbil, Abu Ghraib and in Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. The report does not mention how the participants were selected.
Dated December 2007, the report notes that "the Iraqi government has still made no significant progress toward its fundamental goal of national reconciliation." Asked to describe "the current situation in Iraq to a foreign visitor," some groups focused on positive aspects of the recent security improvements. But "most would describe the negative elements of life in Iraq beginning with the 'U.S. occupation' in March 2003," the report says.
Some participants also blamed Iranian meddling for Iraq's problems. While the United States was said to want to control Iraq's oil, Iran was seen as seeking to extend its political and religious agendas.
Few mentioned Saddam Hussein as a cause of their problems, which the report described as an important finding implying that "the current strife in Iraq seems to have totally eclipsed any agonies or grievances many Iraqis would have incurred from the past regime, which lasted for nearly four decades -- as opposed to the current conflict, which has lasted for five years."
Overall, the report said that "these findings may be expected to conclude that national reconciliation is neither anticipated nor possible. In reality, this survey provides very strong evidence that the opposite is true." A sense of "optimistic possibility permeated all focus groups . . . and far more commonalities than differences are found among these seemingly diverse groups of Iraqis."