Unlike in the United States where names like Gallup, Zogby International, Harris Interactive, Opinion Research Corporation and Rasmussen are a dime a dozen, there are comparatively few public opinion polls conducted in Iraq. This is probably for the same reason that there aren't too many Mercedes Benz dealerships in the embattled middle eastern country at the moment: understanding what public opinion favors is a luxury. Unlike Mercedes Benz though, public opinion research is a luxury that Iraq's former rulers had no interest in. But the data gathered by polls that have been conducted shows that Americans and Iraqis have more in common than most probably assume.
For example, when Iraqis were asked in a fall 2006 poll whether they approved of the job the US was doing in Iraq across several categories (such as training Iraqi security forces or helping as a go-between in ethnic disagreements), Iraqi approval never topped 27% in any of the categories. Similarly, a recent poll of Americans shows that 27% of approve of how President Bush is leading the US in Iraq.
Steven Kull, an expert on polling who serves as director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes and runs the website WorldPublicOpinion.org, remarked on common ground between Americans and Iraqis during a speech he gave at conference about US-Islamic relations in Qatar earlier this year. "We have found some interesting areas of common ground," Kull said. "For example, 60 percent of Americans and 78 percent of Iraqis agree that the US military presence in Iraq is 'provoking more conflict than it is preventing.'"
"Interestingly, Iraqis and Americans are not even very far apart on the question of what the US should do now," Kull continued. "Both Iraqis and Americans want the US to commit to withdraw within a limited time period, rather than having an open-ended commitment."
Polls show that wide majorities of both Iraqis and Americans are wary of Iran's influence on Iraq and that almost nobody supports Osama bin Laden. What's more, American and Iraqi feelings towards the conflict seem to have been evolving together over time. For instance, after Iraq's elections in December 2005, polls in both countries showed both peoples were more optimistic than they had ever been for Iraq's future. Since then however, pessimism has been growing among both those in the US and Iraq: the number of Iraqis who feel their country is moving in the "right direction" has sunk 20 points, and American optimism for the future of Iraq has seen a comparable decrease.
This isn't to say that there aren't areas where Americans and Iraqis disagree. Take for example the question of whether or not it's acceptable to attack US forces. A year ago, one poll found that 47% of Iraqis approve of attacks on US forces. That percentage is now slightly more than 60% (including more than 90% of Sunnis). Although no polls have asked how many in the United States support attacks on American troops, it's probably a safe bet that Iraqis and Americans don't agree on this one.
Some in the United States who are supportive of the Bush Administration's war policies say polls are inaccurate and worthless. The President himself has criticized the worth of opinion polling, asserting several times that he doesn't pay any attention to it. Despite the distrust that some have in polling, the US military has been keenly interested in opinion polls since the initial invasion in 2003.
Pentagon reports on the situation in Iraq routinely cite polling statistics in order to help the policy experts who read them gain a greater understanding of the situation there and how ordinary Iraqis feel. In fact, it was discovered by the American press in 2004 that the Coalition Provisional Authority itself was secretly sponsoring polls to determine Iraqi public opinion in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Richard Perle, a self-avowed neocon who believes invading Iraq was the right decision, dismissed polling statistics on the March 18th edition of NBC's Meet the Pres. "I don't understand the idea of citing polling statistics when there is an elected government in Iraq," Perle said. "Let me remind you, people voted, risking their lives to vote. There is a government there and if they ask us to leave, I have no doubt that we will leave."
"They've not asked us to leave because they don't agree with those polls. I'm not sure the polls are valid in the first place," Perle argued.
Perle is of course assuming that the Iraqi public supports their Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose party received about 40% of the vote in the Iraqi elections back in December 2005 (al-Maliki took office in May 2006; his term lasts until 2010). Some would argue that by Perle's logic, because Americans elected President Bush in 2004 they must approve of his handling of the Iraq war (in reality, polls show that less than 30% of Americans approve of Bush's Iraq policy). However, according to recent media reports, a secret new poll commissioned by al-Maliki's Administration shows that about the same number of Iraqis approve of their government as Americans support theirs: 34%.
Still, Perle and some others disagree with polls that show upwards of 70 percent of Iraqis want the United States to withdraw troops by this time next year or sooner. On this point Steven Kull says that 76% of Iraqis suspect that if their government were to ask the US to withdraw troops, the Bush Administration would not listen. "Interestingly, Americans agree that the US would not withdraw if asked. And Americans are uncomfortable with that," Kull told the US-Islamic Forum in February.
Ultimately, Kull says the American public is interested in listening to what Iraqis want. "If either the Iraqi government or the Iraqi people want the US to make a commitment to withdraw in a year, three-quarters of Americans think the US should."
Arlen Parsa writes about politics and current events at thedailybackground.com.