Leaders of Iraq's religious parties have emerged as the country's most popular politicians and would win the largest share of votes if an election were held today, while the U.S.-backed government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is losing serious ground, according to a U.S.-financed poll by the International Republican Institute.
More than 45 percent of Iraqis also believe that their country is heading in the wrong direction, and 41 percent say it is moving in the right direction.
Within the Bush administration, a victory by Iraq's religious parties is viewed as the worst-case scenario. Washington has hoped that Allawi and the current team, which was selected by U.S. and U.N. envoys, would win or do well in Iraq's first democratic election, in January. U.S. officials believe a secular government led by moderates is critical, in part because the new government will oversee writing a new Iraqi constitution.
"The picture it paints is that, after all the blood and treasure we've spent and despite the [U.S.-led] occupation's democracy efforts, we're in a position now that the moderates would not win if an election were held today," said a U.S. official who requested anonymity because the poll has not been released.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the political honeymoon after the handover of political power on June 28 ended much earlier than anticipated. The new poll, based on 2,000 face-to-face interviews conducted among all ethnic and religious groups nationwide between Sept. 24 and Oct. 4, shows that Iraqi support for the government has plummeted to about 43 percent who believe it is effective, down from 62 percent in a late-summer poll.
A senior State Department official played down the results. "When the interim government took over, the [poll] numbers were artificially high. It's very difficult to meet expectations when they're sky-high," he said on the condition of anonymity because the data are still being analyzed.
But in another blow, one out of three Iraqis blames the U.S.-led multinational force for Iraq's security problems, slightly more than the 32 percent who blame foreign terrorists, the poll shows. Only 8 percent blame members of the former government.
"We had convinced everyone -- Americans and Iraqis -- that things might change with the return of sovereignty, but, in fact, things went the other way," a congressional staff member said. "What's particularly damning is that the multinational force gets more blame than the terrorists for the problems in Iraq. It's all trending in the wrong way . . . and it's not likely we'll be able to change public sentiment much before the election. "
In positive news for the administration, the poll found that 85 percent of Iraqis want to vote in the January election.
Despite the current strife, about two-thirds of Iraqis do not believe civil war is imminent, the poll found. Asked if their households had been hurt by violence, injuries, death or monetary loss over the past year, only 22 percent of those questioned said yes -- a figure that surprised pollsters and U.S. officials.
With voter registration due to begin Nov. 1, the poll found that 64 percent of Iraqis are still unwilling to align with any party, which U.S. officials attribute to the legacy of the Baath Party. The most valuable indicators, officials say, may be the data on Iraq's politicians.
The poll found the most popular politician is Abdel Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The group was part of the U.S.-backed opposition to Saddam Hussein and is now receiving millions of dollars in aid from Iran, U.S. officials say.
Hakim had 80 percent name recognition among Iraqis, with more than 51 percent wanting to see him in the national assembly, which will pick a new government.
Allawi had the greatest name recognition of any politician, with 47 percent of Iraqis supporting him for a seat in the new parliament. But rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr came in a very close third, with 46 percent backing him for an assembly seat.
Ahmed Chalabi, once favored in Washington as a possible successor to Hussein, had wide national recognition, but only 15 percent want him in parliament -- and more than half oppose him.
The one factor that skews the poll, analysts said, is that Ibrahim Jafari, the Dawa Party chief and current vice president, was not included. He had the highest popularity rating in previous polls.
That may still be the case, since almost 18 percent of Iraqis surveyed by IRI said they were most likely to vote for Dawa candidates -- the largest backing among the top 11 parties listed. Dawa is another former U.S.-backed group supported by aid from Iran, U.S. officials say.
U.S. officials and Iraqi analysts believe candidates aligned with the Supreme Council and with Dawa are likely to capture the highest percentage of votes, giving religious parties an edge in forming a new government.
Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar, a Sunni leader of the country's largest tribe, was also omitted from the poll.
In an interview with Abu Dhabi television, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that Iraqis want democracy and are unlikely to go "from one form of totalitarian state to another form of totalitarian state." Both U.S. officials and Iraq experts note that the rise of Islamic parties does not necessarily mean creation of an Islamic government or theocracy such as Iran's.
President Bush said Tuesday that he would be "disappointed" if free and fair elections in Iraq led to the seating of an Islamic government, but that the United States would accept the results. "Democracy is democracy," he said. "If that's what people choose, that's what the people choose."
The IRI, founded in 1983, is a private, nonprofit organization that has worked in more than 60 countries to advance democracy worldwide. With U.S. grants, it has been in charge of public opinion polls in advance of the election.