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The US Occupation and Popular Opinion in Iraq

by KEVIN YOUNG

 

No nation that claims to value democracy for the world’s people can maintain a military occupation against the will of the occupied population. Yet despite what seems like a fundamental moral truism-the notion that a military occupation of one country by another can only be justified if the occupied population supports it-mainstream commentators in this country rarely broach the subject of Iraqi attitudes toward the US-led occupation. Iraqi public opinion polls, when they even make it into the newspapers, are accorded astoundingly little weight. Instead, most US politicians and analysts repeat vague slogans about how “Iraqis need us” and how “we’ll leave when they ask us to.”

A brief look at Iraqi attitudes toward the occupation reveals why mainstream commentators in this country opt for such ambiguity rather than dealing with the polls themselves: Iraqis have consistently stated that the occupation is a destabilizing force in their country, that the situation would improve after a US withdrawal, and that the US has ulterior motives for staying in Iraq.

Over the last four years, and in polls from a wide range of sources, Iraqis have been especially unequivocal on one point: that the US military occupation of their country produces more violence than it prevents. A May 2004 poll sponsored by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority found that roughly 80 percent of Iraqis had “no confidence” in US-led forces to improve security and that most “would feel safer if Coalition forces left immediately.”

A year later, in August 2005, a secret poll conducted for the British Defense Ministry found that “less than one per cent [sic] of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security.” Polls conducted over the past two years have continued to find strong majorities of Iraqis concurring in this view:

January 2006: A poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found that around two-thirds of respondents agreed that “‘day to day security for ordinary Iraqis’ would increase,” that “violent attacks would decrease,” and that “the amount of interethnic violence will decrease” if the United States withdrew by the summer of 2006.

September 2006: A second PIPA poll found that 78 percent of Iraqis believe the occupation “is provoking more conflict than it is preventing.”

March 2007: A poll sponsored by US, British, and German news agencies found that “[m]ore than seven in 10 Shiites-and nearly all Sunni Arabs-think the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is making security worse.” A separate survey by the UK-based Opinion Research Business found that 74 percent of Iraqis (including 77 percent of Baghdad residents) expected the security situation in Iraq to improve (53 percent) or to stay roughly the same (21 percent) immediately following a withdrawal of occupation forces. Only 26 percent expected security to get worse.

August 2007: A poll sponsored by news agencies in the US, UK, and Germany found that around 70 percent of Iraqis “believe security has deteriorated in the area covered by the US military ‘surge’ of the past six months” Moreover, 67-70 percent “believe the surge has hampered conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development.” When asked how much confidence they had in the US-led forces, 85 percent of Iraqis answered “not very much” or “none at all”-compared with 82 percent in February 2007, 78 percent in 2005, and 66 percent in 2004. When given a list of 14 individuals, groups, and factors influencing the level of violence in Iraq, 27 percent of Iraqis identified the US-led forces or President Bush as the single biggest culprits for that violence. Seventy-two percent said that the presence of US forces continued to make security worse, with another 9 percent saying it had no effect.

October 2007: A poll by the US Defense Department found that 12 percent of Iraqis “had at least some confidence in the Multi-National Force to protect their families against threats”-evidently the most optimistic phrasing possible for such a dismal statistic. Curiously, the report also boasted of the “growing support of the local population” and marvelous improvements in security courtesy of the US surge.

Although the exact percentages have fluctuated from poll to poll, the major surveys of Iraqi public opinion since 2004 are very clear concerning the effects of the US presence in Iraq: Iraqis overwhelming believe that the continued occupation is an impediment to peace, and indeed, that it continues to create violence rather than quelling it. Among Iraqis the most generous view of the US presence is that it continually fails to improve security in Iraq-even after nearly a year of the much-vaunted “surge.”

With similar consistency, Iraqis have voiced strong opposition to the presence of occupation forces. In August 2005, 82 percent were “strongly opposed” to the occupation; in January 2006, 87 percent favored a timeline for withdrawal; a year later, in September 2006, 71 percent wanted a full withdrawal by mid-2007.

Although these figures fluctuate somewhat, the March 2007 poll commissioned by US, British, and German news corporations presents a clearer picture of rising Iraqi opposition to the occupation over time. This poll found that 78 percent of Iraqis “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed the occupation, and then compares this finding to answers to the same question from February 2004 and November 2005. At the start of 2004, nearly one year after the invasion, 51 percent of Iraqis “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed the occupation; 21 months later, that figure had risen to 65 percent; by March 2007, it had climbed again to 78 percent. By August 2007, the percentage “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed to the occupation had stayed more or less the same, increasing slightly to 79 percent.

This progressive rise in popular hostility toward the US-led occupation is confirmed by another crucial statistic: the percentages of Iraqis who approve of insurgent attacks on occupation forces. In January 2006, 47 percent approved of such attacks; by September 2006, the figure had risen to 61 percent; in August 2007, 57 percent continued to approve of such attacks, including 93 percent of Sunnis. The resentment of ordinary Iraqis toward the US goes a long way toward explaining how a small insurgency numbering fewer than 30,000 Iraqis and 800-2,000 foreigners has successfully prevented US-led and Iraqi government forces (which together total over 600,000) from establishing military dominance in Iraq for almost five years.

Not all polling results are so unequivocal. In particular, the dozens of polls taken over the last four years suggest disagreements among Iraqis over exactly when and how the occupation forces should withdraw. Although almost all Iraqis have consistently supported a “timeline” for withdrawal, many polls do not ask respondents to comment on how soon that withdrawal should occur or on what should happen afterwards to bring peace. The few polls that have worded their questions more specifically have found subtle disagreements, such as whether the US-led forces should withdraw immediately, within six months, or within a year, etc. For example, a September 2006 poll by the US State Department found that 65 percent of Baghdad residents favored an immediate withdrawal of all US troops.

However, another poll that same month (described above) found that 71 percent of Iraqis wanted the US to withdraw within twelve months-with only 37 percent of that block favoring a US withdrawal within six months. Such results suggest significant variations in Iraqi attitudes not just over time, but even from one poll to the next within a very limited time frame. These variations probably derive largely from the subtleties of the polling process: the phrasing of the questions, the options given, the identity of the pollsters, the regional foci of the poll, etc.

In contrast, though, Iraqi respondents have been remarkably consistent in several of their answers, particularly with regard to the effects of the US military presence. They have consistently and overwhelmingly stated that the occupation produces more violence than it prevents. They have constantly expressed deep mistrust of US motives (most believe the US is largely motivated by the desire for Iraqi oil and that it plans to leave permanent military bases in their country). And they have consistently argued that a US withdrawal would not result in increased violence, but that it would actually help ease sectarian divisions and diminish the support bases of al Qaeda and other extremists.

In the August 2007 poll 46 percent answered that a “full-scale civil war” would be “less likely” given the immediate withdrawal of US forces, with another 19 percent saying that the withdrawal would “have no effect” in that regard. Only minorities of respondents stated that an immediate withdrawal would mean an increased terrorist presence or more power for Iran within Iraq, and only 9 percent said that a withdrawal would lead to “increased violence in the Kurdish areas.”

As journalist Patrick Cockburn noted in December 2007, “However much Iraqis may fight among themselves a central political fact in Iraq remains the unpopularity of the US-led occupation outside Kurdistan.”

KEVIN YOUNG is a Graduate Student in Latin American History at Stony Brook University. He can be reached at: kyoung@wesleyan.edu

 

 

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