WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- The majority of Iraqis want a timetable set for the withdrawal of United States forces even while believing that the presence of the military in their country is permanent, a new opinion poll shows.
Discussing the results at a Saban Center for Middle East Policy briefing at the Brookings Institution Tuesday, senior fellow Kenneth Pollack recommended close attention to the poll, calling Iraqi public opinion "a growing political force."
The poll, conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, the website World Public Opinion and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, used data from a nationwide survey of 1,150 Iraqis from all 18 provinces; 150 Arab Sunnis were included as an oversample.
"Not surprisingly, we found a remarkable division," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, "between Arab Sunnis and the Kurds and Shi'ias." Ninety-four percent of Sunnis, as opposed to 77 percent of Kurds and only 67 percent of Shias, said that the United States would not withdraw within six months if asked to do so by the new Iraqi government.
Conversely, most Iraqis seemed to agree on whether the U.S. planned to install permanent military bases in Iraq: 80 percent of the population believes that the bases that the Bush Administration is building in Iraq and has classified as "enduring" are meant as a permanent means of installing the American military in Iraq.
Calling these results "striking," Pollack attributed this contradiction to Iraqis using public opinion polls as a means of expressing their beliefs when no one will listen to them. The poll results are not incorrect he said, but rather an opportunity "for Iraqis to speak truth to power. Their government and the United States are not paying attention to their basic needs."
The most disturbing finding of the poll deals with terrorism and violence against the U.S. military. Eight-eight percent of Sunnis and 41 percent of Shias said that they approved of insurgent attacks on American forces.
"Support for attacks against the U.S. military may not be prompted by a desire for the U.S. to withdraw," Kull reasoned, "but rather, they may be motivated by the belief that the U.S. will never leave."
This distinction becomes clearer when the poll numbers are broken down by the foci of the attacks: 47 percent of the public approves of attacks on U.S. forces but only 7 percent support attacks on Iraqi government security forces and 1 percent approve of attacks on Iraqi civilians. Pollack disagreed, saying that he had yet to meet an Iraqi who encouraged the insurgence. "They don't approve of terrorism but they understand where the emotion is coming from. There is the idea that Americans should expect such attacks. Clearly," said Pollack, "the perception is that attacks on U.S.-led forces are not viewed as terrorism."
Such gaps between reality and expectation occur repeatedly in the poll. While 87 percent of Iraqis say they would approve of their government endorsing a timeline for the U.S. withdrawal, they are divided evenly over whether it should occur in six months or gradually over the space of two years. Pollack believes that Iraqis are prioritizing their fears, balancing their concerns over possible civil war with their innate dislike of a foreign occupier. "They recognize that their institutions of security and politics are not ready to function," he said.
Results show that, while frustrated with the United States' blunders in rebuilding infrastructure, Iraqis have not yet lost heart in the reconstruction process. Seventy-seven percent of Kurds and 89 percent of Shias believed that recent parliamentary elections were free and fair while 81 and 90 percent respectively thought that the new government was the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people. Only 5 percent of the Sunnis surveyed answered in the affirmative on both questions.
Kull believes that the timing of the survey, taken from Jan. 2 through Jan. 5, is particularly important in analyzing Iraqi attitudes towards the United States. "Elections seem to cause a surge in optimism," he said, theorizing that some of the positive polling numbers are due to the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. "Public expectations for the future go up," concurred Pollack, "these poll numbers are timed with what they are getting from their government." Such swings in public opinion are problematic, considering that the next election in Iraq will not be held for another four years.
When asked for their expectations regarding overall security if the United States withdrew within six months; Iraqis overwhelmingly answered with positive responses, saying that the amount of crime would decrease while the availability of public services and the willingness of factions in parliament to cooperate would increase. Pollack called the consensus over the anticipated improvements, "ludicrous."
While acknowledging that the average Iraqis interviewed for the poll did not have much of a voice in improving their daily lives, Pollack and Kull saw some possibilities in such a detailed poll outlining the contradictions among ethnic groups. "The highlighting of democracy in the Arab world," said Kull, "makes it impossible for the Bush administration to ignore public opinion."