Iraq may be the most xenophobic country in the world -- and that's bad news for U.S. efforts to transform the country into the democratic showplace of the Middle East, say three researchers who have studied fear of foreigners in countries around the world.

Political scientists Ronald F. Inglehart and Mark Tessler of the University of Michigan and sociologist Mansoor Moaddel of Eastern Michigan University compared data from a national survey of 2,325 Iraqi adults conducted last year with information gathered from 85 countries since 1999 as part of the World Values Surveys and European Values Surveys.

In each country, people were shown a list with types of people. Then they were asked, "Could you please sort out any that you would not like to have as neighbors." One of the options was "immigrants/foreign workers."

Overall, the researchers found, more than 80 percent of the Iraqi public reject foreigners as neighbors, with Iraqi Arabs the most mistrustful. (When a similar question has been asked in surveys of Americans, about 10 to 15 percent say they don't want foreigners as neighbors.)

Iraqi Arabs and their Kurdish countrymen "reject foreigners to a degree that is virtually unknown in other societies, including predominantly Islamic countries," the trio concluded in a paper presented at a conference on political change in Islamic countries, held at the University of Michigan in May.

Intolerant views were even more apparent when they tested Iraqis' reactions to specific groups of people: About nine in 10 Iraqis said they would not like to have an American, a Brit or someone from France as a neighbor.

Perhaps disdain of Westerners is to be expected. But Iraqis were nearly as likely to shun their neighbors. "Fully 61 percent of the Iraqi public said that they would not want Turks as neighbors and 55 percent said they would not want Iranians," the researchers reported. (The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s might be a factor here, as well as longstanding tensions between Turkey and Iraq's Kurds in the north.) "The only foreign nationality not rejected by a majority of the Iraqi public was the Jordanians, an ethnically similar nationality with close ties." But even here, "44 percent of the Iraqi public said they would not want Jordanians as neighbors," Inglehart and his colleagues reported.

Xenophobia is so widespread in Iraq that any government seen as dependent on foreign military support will have little legitimacy, Inglehart cautioned. But an elected government that is not viewed as being reliant on foreign powers has a good chance to attain legitimacy if -- but only if -- it maintains order, he said.

Their survey did find some hopeful signs for U.S. policy: 85 percent of the Iraqi public surveyed said that democracy was the best form of government, with no significant difference between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs.

Why are Iraqis so xenophobic? Inglehart cited one major factor: "Severe insecurity leads to xenophobia," he said. Beginning in 1968, when Saddam Hussein seized power and launched his reign of terror, it's been harder to find a more insecure society than Iraq anywhere in the world. Even though Saddam is now history (or so President Bush hopes), life in Iraq "is intensely insecure and everyone is intensely aware of it," Inglehart said.

As it happens, foreigners aren't the only group that make Iraqis squinty-eyed. When asked if men make better leaders than women do, 93 percent of Iraqi Arabs said yes, "a higher proportion than in any other society studied," while 72 percent of Iraqi Kurds agreed -- 30 percentage points higher than the median of 42 percent for all countries.

But What About Esperanto?

Nearly half of the world's 6,000 spoken languages are near death or dying, say experts who are mounting a multimillion dollar effort to document and record languages in danger of disappearing.

Language scholars gathered in May at National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington to brief journalists on plans to document more than 70 of these vanishing tongues and explain why they are worth preserving before they become extinct.

The efforts include a project by scientists at Cornell University and Northern Arizona University, who will gather ultrasound and airflow data to determine how the "click" sounds of South Africa's N/u language are produced.

There are only 13 fluent N/u speakers still living. Kristine Stenzel from the University of Colorado will document and analyze Piratapuyo -- a language from the Amazon region with a rare word order: object-verb-subject, the opposite of standard English.

(That reminds me of the old joke mocking the quirky sentence construction once favored by Time magazine writers: "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.")

All told, the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities will spend more than $4 million on more than two dozen projects.

No word yet on whether there's going to be a grant to record proper English, which some language purists also claim is fast disappearing.

Killer Toilets?

Our heart goes out to the families of the three teenagers in Florida who were attacked by sharks last week, one fatally. These tragic and unsettling incidents made the Unconventional Wiz wonder about the relative danger of such attacks.

Here's reassuring news, just in time for summer beach season: The odds are greater that you'll be killed or injured by a deer or a bathroom appliance than by a marauding shark, according to the latest statistics complied by the International Shark Attack File maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Its numbers show that in the 1990s, an average of 130 people were killed each year in the United States when they slammed their cars into deer.

Over the same period, the average death rate for shark attacks was fewer than one per year. In fact, you're slightly more likely to be killed by a mountain lion or an alligator than by a shark -- perhaps good reason to stay out of the mountains and swamps.

Stay out of the bathroom, too. Injuries involving toilets number in the tens of thousands each year. In addition, bathroom bowl products (things such as plungers, cleansers and, we presume, those ghastly deodorant cakes found in rest stop toilets) annually account for more than a thousand injuries.

Killer sharks? Statistically, no problem. I'm worried about those toilets.

morinr@washpost.com