A new, extensive survey of Iraqi public opinion conducted by Gallup and other groups discredits numerous cherished beliefs that hawks have held about Iraq. For months, the Bush administration and its supporters have argued that there is a silent majority of Iraqis who regard coalition forces as liberators, want those forces to stay for a prolonged period, oppose insurgent attacks on coalition troops, and are enthusiastic about creating a Western-style democracy for their country. The poll results contradict every one of those assumptions.
Take the question of whether Iraqis regard U.S. and allied forces as liberators or occupiers. Only 19 percent of respondents consider them liberators. The results are even more dismal when sentiment in the Kurdish region is excluded. Ninety-seven percent of Kurds view those forces as liberators. In the Sunni and Shiite regions that sentiment is 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
The belief that U.S. troops are occupiers rather than liberators has grown steadily, but it is not a new phenomenon. When asked how they had viewed coalition troops at the time of the invasion, 43 percent indicated that they had seen them as occupiers-the same percentage that regarded them as liberators. That result debunks the myth that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis welcomed the invasion. Even at the earliest stage of the mission, Iraqi opinion was sharply divided about the desirability of the U.S.-led intervention.
The poll results also belie the notion that a majority of Iraqis want U.S. and British troops to stay on for an extended period. Instead, 57 percent want those troops to leave “immediately.” Again, the contrast between the opinion of Kurds and Arabs is striking. Only 3 percent of Kurds want the forces to depart immediately. In the Shiite areas, the sentiment is 61 percent and in the Sunni areas it is 65 percent. (And in Baghdad it is a stunning 75 percent).
Even more discouraging, support for armed attacks on coalition forces is not confined to a tiny minority of extremists as the Bush administration has insisted. Twenty-two percent of respondents stated that attacks were justified “sometimes,” and another 29 percent endorsed attacks without any qualification.
Nor is there any indication of a vast reservoir of support for democracy. Only 40 percent advocate the creation of a multiparty parliamentary democracy for Iraq. The rest advocate systems ranging from the traditional “Islamic concept of mutual consultation,” to a conservative Islamic kingdom like Saudi Arabia, to an Islamic theocracy like Iran. Once again, strong support for democracy in the Kurdish north contrasts with anemic support in the Sunni and Shiite regions (31 percent and 27 percent respectively.)
Finally, overall attitudes toward the United States and the Coalition Provisional Authority are extremely negative. Only 27 percent have a favorable opinion of the CPA, and just 23 percent have a favorable opinion of the United States.
It is evident that U.S. policy in Iraq has been based on faulty assumptions about Iraqi attitudes. There is no silent majority of pro-American Iraqis. Instead, most Iraqis regard the U.S.-led mission as an occupation, not a liberation, and they want that occupation to end immediately. A majority of Iraqis endorse attacks on coalition forces, at least under some circumstances, and they do not want a Western-style democracy for their country.
Worst of all, the trend in opinion is ominous. There has been a marked upsurge of opposition to the Iraq mission since a similar poll was taken in mid-March by ABC News and other organizations. Time is not on Washington’s side. To the extent that we ever had a welcome in Iraq, we have overstayed that welcome. The first step in developing a new policy — and a badly needed exit strategy — is to abandon all of the myths that supporters of the Iraq mission have cherished for so long.