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Baghdad Shias Believe Killings May Increase Once U.S.-led Forces Depart but Large Majorities Still Support Withdrawal Within a Year

November 20, 2006

Shias in the Capital—Unlike Those in the Rest of Iraq—Oppose Disarming Militias

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IraqShia_Nov06_img.jpg Most Shia Arabs living in Baghdad have shifted in recent months from preferring the open-ended deployment of foreign troops in Iraq to wanting a one-year timetable for withdrawal. Nonetheless, a growing majority of Shias in the conflict-ridden capital say that if U.S.-led forces leave within six months there could be an upsurge in inter-ethnic violence.

Iraqi children watch a U.S. soldier in Baghdad, June 19, 2006 (MSgt Jonathan F. Doti/Department of Defense)

An analysis of two nationwide polls taken by World Public Opinion.org in Iraq over the past year reveals both a heightened sense of insecurity in Baghdad, which is suffering from a wave of shootings, kidnappings and bombings, and an increasing desire to place some time limit on the presence of foreign troops. Unlike Shias elsewhere, those living in the capital do not favor disarming the militias.

Eight out of ten Shias in Baghdad (80%) say they want foreign forces to leave within a year (72% of Shias in the rest of the country), according to a poll conducted by World Public Opinion in September. None of the Shias polled in Baghdad want U.S.-led troops to be reduced only “as the security situation improves,” a sharp decline from January, when 57 percent of the Shias polled by WPO in the capital city preferred an open-ended U.S presence.

IraqShia_Nov06_graph3a.jpgThis brings Baghdad Shias in line with the rest of the country. Seven out of ten Iraqis overall—including both the Shia majority (74%) and the Sunni minority (91%)—say they want the United States to leave within a year.

Nonetheless, the number of Shias in Baghdad who fear an upsurge in violence if U.S. troops withdraw within too short a time span has risen a dramatic 52 points since the beginning of the year. Six out of ten Shias in Iraq’s capital city (59%) believe that sect-on-sect killings would rise in the event of a speedy U.S. withdrawal. This view contrasts with that of Shias in the rest of Iraq, where a majority (64%) thinks such violence would decline if U.S. troops departed in six months.

World Public Opinion has conducted two recent polls in Iraq: a nationwide sample of 1,150 Iraqi adults, taken Sept. 1-4, 2006, and another nationwide sample of 1,150, conducted Jan. 2-5, 2006. Both surveys were fielded by KA Research Ltd./D3 Systems, Inc.

IraqShia_Nov06_graph.jpgOutside of Baghdad, majorities of Shias and Sunnis have been consistently optimistic about the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal. In January, 56 percent of Shias said inter-ethnic violence would decrease (37% increase) if the U.S.-led forces pulled out while in September, 64 percent said it would decline (29% increase). Among Sunni Arabs, majorities in September (72%) and January (81%) said interethnic violence would decrease if U.S. troops withdrew in six months.

The WPO polls provide a window into Iraqi public opinion about the potential costs and benefits of a U.S. withdrawal at a time when the Bush administration is coming under increasing domestic pressure to bring U.S. troops home. Senior Democratic lawmakers have made clear that pushing for the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq will be at the top of their agenda when they take over the leadership of Congress in January. President Bush, however, has resisted such a timetable, arguing that troops should only be withdrawn as Iraqi forces become capable of fighting the insurgency themselves.

Fewer than one in ten Iraqis (9%) believe foreign forces should only be reduced “as the security situation improves,” a drop of 20 points since January. Support for this option has fallen especially steeply among Shias (from 29% to 5%) and Kurds (57% to 31%).

Nearly all Sunnis also oppose the indefinite presence of foreign forces (2% in favor). But while a majority of Sunnis (57%) still prefer that U.S.-led troops leave within six months, that percentage has declined 26 points since January when 83 percent wanted foreign forces out within half a year.

“Iraqis (whether Sunnis or Shiites) want the U.S. out of Iraq, because after the regime's removal (which they applaud) it has only brought chaos,” said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East Project Director for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit that studies global conflict. “But they also know that the U.S., for all its blunders, is still keeping the army together and is serving as a buffer between Shiite militias (Badr and Mahdi), so a precipitous departure could spell disaster for the country.”

The September poll took place after a summer during which Sunni and Shia death squads pushed violence in Iraq to its highest level in more than two years, according to a Pentagon report released Sept. 2. The report cited statistics from the Baghdad coroner’s office showing that it received 1,600 bodies in June and more than 1,800 in July. The office stated that more than 90 percent of the deaths appeared to result from executions.

The Pentagon report, part of a quarterly series on security in Iraq mandated by Congress, also estimated that throughout Iraq more than 3,000 people were killed each month and that 2,000 of the casualties resulted from sectarian violence.

Baghdad Shias Want Militias to Provide Local Security

The Shia population in Baghdad is more skeptical than elsewhere about the wisdom of disarming the militias. Outside of the capital, most Shias say they prefer a strong government capable of getting rid of such armed groups (77%). In Baghdad, however, Shias say they want militias to continue to protect their security (59%). When asked, “Could you rely on the government alone to ensure security in your area if all militias were to disarm now?” a majority of Shias in the capital say they could not (59%). Elsewhere about the same proportion says they could (60%).

Among Iraqis overall, 77 percent prefer that a strong government get rid of militias, including 100 percent of the Sunnis polled and 82 percent of Kurds. Sixty-eight percent of Iraqis say they could rely on the government to provide security if militias were to disarm, including 93 percent of Sunnis and 72 percent of Kurds.

Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, says the support for militias shown by Shias in Baghdad may reflect their role in providing not only security but also some social services to the poor in Sadr City, a vast Shia slum in eastern Baghdad dominated by the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to Moqtada Sadr, a radical Shia cleric.

[The Mahdi Army] is not just a militia to Shias there,” he said. “It provides services that they need, it does things for them that the government is not doing.”

The number of Shias in the capital city and elsewhere who think Iraq is headed in the right direction has dropped considerably since the beginning of 2006. In January, nine out of ten Shias in Baghdad (88%) thought Iraq was on the right path. By September, three quarters (74%) did. Outside of Baghdad, the declining optimism among Shias has been even steeper. Eight-two percent thought Iraq was headed in the right direction in January while about half (52%) thought so by September.

Growing Shia Confidence in Iraqi Security Forces

Despite the growing concern in Baghdad about civil strife, a large majority of Shias there believe Iraqi forces will soon be capable of meeting their country’s security challenges. Seven in ten Shias in Baghdad (71%) say Iraqi forces will be strong enough within six months to take over the country’s security should foreign troops withdraw. That’s an increase of 30 percent from January, when only 41 percent thought that Iraqis would be able to take on the country’s security challenges within six months. There is little difference of opinion on this between Shias in Baghdad (71%) and those elsewhere (66%).

All Shias polled in Baghdad (100%) believe that the U.S. military presence is “provoking more conflict than it is preventing.” Outside of Baghdad, this view is slightly less common: 74 percent of Shias in the rest of the country say the presence of U.S. troops provokes conflict while 25 percent say the troops are a stabilizing force.

IraqShia_Nov06_graph2.jpgAt the same time, the number of Shias who approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces has jumped 24 points. In January, about a third of Shias (36%) polled in Baghdad expressed approval of such assaults. By September, the proportion of Shias in Baghdad saying they approved of striking American-led forces had risen to 60 percent. In the rest of the country, Shia support for attacking foreign troops rose 20 points, from 43 percent to 63 percent.

Most Shias in Baghdad (83%) think that the United States plans to keep troops in Iraq permanently, which suggests that they see insurgents as battling a long-term occupation and may explain why they approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces even though they do not support an immediate withdrawal. This view is somewhat less common among Shias outside of Baghdad (69%).

Telhami called the increase in support for attacks on U.S.-led forces disturbing, adding that he has found similar trends in polls he has conducted in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

“What’s most troubling is that the United States is not only seen in a negative light but as an enemy,” Telhami said. “When asked to name the two countries that pose the greatest threat, the vast majority, about 80 percent, name the United States and Israel.”

Sunnis in Baghdad

The samples of Sunnis polled in Baghdad, where they make up about a quarter of the population, were small (75 in September, 85 in January), so the following findings should be taken with caution. However, some changes are robust enough to merit discussion.

At the beginning of 2006, Sunnis in Baghdad were somewhat less pessimistic about the consequences of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow—and less in favor of attacks on U.S. soldiers—than Sunnis in the rest of the country, probably a reflection of the fact that most of the fighting between Sunni insurgents and U.S. troops had taken place in the so-called “Sunni triangle,” located northwest of the capital.

In recent months, however, as ethnic violence has increased in Iraq’s capital, the Sunni population there seems to have become considerably more hostile to the United States.

While a third of Sunnis in Baghdad (34%) said in January that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth it (compared to 8% of Sunnis elsewhere), none said so in September (compared to 13% elsewhere). More ominously, 100 percent of Sunnis in Baghdad said in September that they approved of attacks on U.S.-led forces, up 44 points since January (57%). In the rest of the country, nine out of ten Sunnis (91%) said they favored such attacks.

Methodological note: In September 2006, WPO’s survey included 159 Shias in Baghdad and 342 Shias in the rest of Iraq, plus 75 Sunnis in Baghdad and 324 Sunnis in the rest of Iraq. In January 2006, the sample included 144 Shias in Baghdad and 342 Shias in the rest of Iraq, plus 85 Sunnis in Baghdad and 336 Sunnis in the rest of Iraq.

Each sample design included an intentional oversample of 150 Sunnis across Iraq. In previous articles on the total Iraqi population, the samples were weighted for appropriate projections. Here unweighted samples have been used to provide sufficient numbers for meaningful analysis.


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