Global Policy Forum

Is the IRI Spinning the Poll


By Juan Cole

Informed Comment
October 24, 2004

I find the cover page at the International Republican Institute web site concerning its recent polling in Iraq to be extremely disturbing. IRI is of course closely linked to the US Republican party and does the polling with US tax dollars (i.e. you and I are paying for it). The web site tries to spin the alarming results of the poll so as to emphasize the positives for the Bush administration. The only positive signs they can come up with, though, are that 64% of Iraqis remain optimistic that next year will be better than this; that 58% of Iraqis believe elections will be held in January; that 2/3s think a civil war unlikely; and that 52 percent of Iraqis believe that religion and state should respect one another but remain separate.

The authors of this screed go out of their way to debunk press reports that a majority of Iraqis favor religious parties, pointing out that few parties polled well. This statement is frankly dishonest; in fact the entire summary is deeply dishonest, and is designed to help Bush win the election. All Americans should be outraged at this misuse of supposed social science and of our tax money.

Before looking at the actual poll numbers, I can signal my disagreements with the summary. Optimism is relative and may or may not tell us much. It is not actually a good sign that over 40% of Iraqis either do not believe that elections can be held in January or don't know if they can.

The question is not how many think civil war likely. It is who thinks civil war is likely. If Kirkuk does, that is alarming, because they are the ones who would fight such a war. Obviously a civil war is far from the thinking of a largely Shiite city like Basra, of 1.3 million deep in the Shiite south.

Western observers are extremely imprecise in their language about religion and state. Many say that Grand Ayatollah Sistani favors a separation of religion and state, which is completely untrue. He wants Islamic law to be the law of the land, and wants his fatwas on "social issues" to be obeyed. He just doesn't want clerics to run the Islamic state-- he wants it to be laypeople. So the model is more like the Sudan (if Sudan had genuine elections) than it is like Iran. So how exactly the question was asked in Arabic would be key to the answer given and to what that answer actually means. If the Iraqis thought you were asking about clerical rule, then a bare majority is against it. If they thought you were asking about implementing Islamic law, the answer might be different. And, the most popular politicians are the ones who most want Islamic law. The poll does not even ask about Islamic law.

Although Iraqis did not strongly identify with parties, they have over and over made it clear in IRI and other polls who the most popular politicians in the country are. The men named for whom Iraqis would vote are Ibrahim Jaafari, leader of the al-Da`wa Party (founded in 1958 as a revolutionary Shiite organization aiming for an Islamic state) and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (the name says it all). Jaafari for some odd reason was not included in this most recent poll (perhaps in hopes that leaving him out of the choices would allow the IRI to deny the clear trend toward theocratic voting). I could not find the slide at the IRI site that gave al-Hakim by far the biggest lead among the rest, but it was reported in the press summaries of the poll.

Some 40% of Iraqis say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by a religious leader. About 11 percent say they would vote for a candidate endorsed by a political party. But all the most important political parties in the Arab provinces (Da'wa, SCIRI, the Association of Muslim Scholars) are religious. So this result suggests that at least half of the population will vote as Sistani, Da'wa and so forth instruct them. Another 15% would vote as their tribal leaders say. But a large number of tribal leaders are loyal to particular clerics, so that this may not be such a separate group.

The IRI poll is skewed to begin with. Its sample is only 55% Shiite, whereas the population is almost certainly 65% Shiite. The sample is 34% Sunni and 9.3% "Muslim." Sunnis would be far more likely to represent themselves as just "Muslim" than are Shiites, and therefore the poll is likely to under-count Shiite views significantly. Since, in turn, Shiites are more likely to want a theocracy, given that the Sunni middle classes retain some Baath-era secularism, if Sunnis are over-represented then so would be secularists.

The "optimism" of the Iraqis, which keeps being touted by the US Right in justification of the mess they have made over there, is a more complex issue than they pretend. First of all, we don't know why they are optimistic about next year being better than this. It could be that they have been plunged into such unprecedented misery that they believe it cannot get worse. "Better" is a relative word, not an absolute one. Second, this poll shows 45% of Iraqis saying the country is headed in the wrong direction, a big jump from June. So the optimism is declining fast, and it is no longer the case that a majority is optimistic. Indeed, more are now pessimistic (45%) than are optimistic (41%). The way the question is asked can also influence the answer. What does "headed in the right direction" even mean to Iraqis? Did they use the word ittijah? Would it have made a difference if they had asked a question like, "Are current policies of the US and Allawi in Iraq likely to produce an improved situation over time?"

Not only are people in the Sunni Arab areas pessimistic, which could be expected, but so are people in Baghdad. And confidence in the northern mixed cities of Mosul and Kirkuk has plummeted. Kirkuk is obviously a tinderbox. Indeed, the only places where optimists form a majority are the deep south around Basra and the Kurdish regions. Even Kurdish optimism is declining from previous highs.

Some 34% of people in Mosul and Kirkuk believe that a civil war is possible or imminent! Since those are the likely sites of a civil war, that over a third think it a serious threat is quite alarming. Moreover, the people of a country are not a good guide to how likely civil war is. Virtually no one in Yugoslavia would have predicted a civil war in 1989. People can learn to hate really fast, in a week or two; and then observers later complain about "centuries-old hatreds," when in fact very often people had gotten along just fine for decades before the conflagration.

Suspicion of the United States is so great that 2/3s of Iraqis believe that if a non-neighboring state instigated a civil war, it would be America! And 22% believe that it would be instigated by Israel in that case. (Admittedly, this wasn't thought a highly likely scenario). More Iraqis blamed the US and its allies in Iraq for the current poor security situation than blamed foreign terrorists! And they were four times more likely to blame the US & coalition than to blame armed elements of the former regime!

About 55% say that the current interim government does not represent people like them. Only 8% enthusiastically say it represents them. Half of Iraqis blame the government for being ineffective, and only 44% think that it has been at all effective (the same 8% are enthusiastic). Allawi's effectiveness rating has fallen from 65% last July to 45% now.

Virtually none of the main points made by the IRI at its website about its own poll are valid in context, which does not exactly inspire confidence in the poll takers. The link to the poll results is given at the bottom of their page, in pdf. Go look at the slides yourself. It is not in fact a pretty picture.

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