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April 30, 2004

US, Iraqi Views of Occupation Converging

by Jim Lobe

One year after President George W Bush declared an end to "major hostilities" in Iraq, public opinion there and in the United States is beginning to converge, as people in both countries increasingly agree that the US invasion and occupation might not have been such a good idea after all.

That is one conclusion of two major public opinion polls released Thursday, one by the New York Times and CBS News, which found that a record 58 percent of US respondents now believe the invasion was not worth the cost in lives and resources, and another by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup that found 57 percent of Iraqis believe U.S.-led coalition forces should leave their country "in the next few months."

The two polls, coming on a day on which at least 10 more US soldiers lost their lives and sporadic skirmishing continued in the besieged central Iraqi city of Fallujah, suggest that public opinion in both countries was increasingly disillusioned with the policies pursued in Iraq by the Bush administration.

Bush's approval rating in the United States for his handling of Iraq, according to the Times/CBS poll has fallen to 41 percent, down from 49 percent in March and 59 percent last December.

The president's ratings are not doing so well in Iraq, either, according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, which found that 55 percent of the nearly 3,500 Iraqis polled in late March and early April throughout the country had either somewhat (11 percent) or very (44 percent) unfavorable views of Bush, as opposed to 24 percent who described their assessments of him as either very or somewhat favorable.

In releasing the Iraq survey, Gallup stressed that it was taken before the siege of Fallujah and Najaf so that it did "not reflect Iraqi views of what has happened in the last three weeks." Most U.S.-based analysts and Iraq-based reporters have noted that public opinion in Iraq has turned more strongly against the US occupation as a result of these events, in which at least 126 US soldiers and 1,200 Iraqis have reportedly been killed.

Of the two polls, the Iraq survey is probably the most significant if only because it is the first independent nationwide survey since the US invasion. About 13 percent of those polled were in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which, having enjoyed a de facto independence from Baghdad since shortly after the first Gulf War (which ended in 1991) is considered the most pro-U.S. part of the country.

The poll indicated considerable ambivalence on the part of Iraqis. For example, while a solid majority support an immediate military pullout (defined as within "the next few months"), 53 percent said they would feel "less safe" if coalition forces "left Iraq today." Twenty-eight percent said they would feel "more safe."

Similarly, 51 percent said they were either "much" (14 percent) or "somewhat" (37 percent) better off than they were before the invasion and 61 percent said former President Saddam Hussein's ouster was worth the hardships they had suffered since the invasion. Only 28 percent disagreed with the latter assessment.

At the same time, 46 percent said they believed the invasion and occupation had done more harm than good, compared to only 33 percent who said they had done more good than harm. Sixteen percent said that it was the same on balance.

And while 76 percent said they were freer to express their political views in public since the invasion, 74 percent said they had felt afraid to go outside their home at night for safety reasons.

As in the US poll, the trend lines in Iraqi public opinion were found to be distinctly negative. Thus, 71 percent of the Iraqi respondents said they considered coalition forces mostly as "occupiers" rather than liberators (19 percent). That rose to an overwhelming 81 percent when respondents from the Kurdish areas were excluded from the sample.

Asked how they would have answered the same question at the time of the invasion, the entire sample split evenly, with 43 percent on either side. The change suggests that nearly one-third of Iraqis who had welcomed the invasion now see it as an occupation..

Similarly, asked whether conditions for "peace and stability" had improved or worsened over the three months before the survey, 25 percent said they had improved, while 54 percent said they had become worse. Nineteen percent said there was no change.

On the performance of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the occupation forces, Iraqis were also generally negative.

On a one-to-five scale, 42 percent rated the CPA's performance as "very bad" or "fairly bad," while only 25 percent gave it positive marks. Nearly two-thirds said the CPA's actions have turned out worse than expected, compared to only 22 percent who said they turned out better.

One-third of respondents gave the conduct of US forces in Iraq positive marks; 58 percent said they had behaved "fairly" or "very badly." But among those who assessed the conduct negatively, only seven percent said their judgment was based on "personal experience" and 38 percent said it was based on what they had personally seen.

Fifty-four percent said their views were based on "what (they) have heard." Indeed, 94 percent of respondents said neither they nor any of their household members had had direct personal contact with US military forces.

Iraqi respondents also gave US forces consistently poor marks for reconstruction activities, and two-thirds agreed with the statement that the soldiers did "not try at all" to "keep ordinary Iraqis from being killed/wounded during exchanges of gunfire" – a perception that may have increased as a result of the hundreds killed in Fallujah earlier this month.

But if Iraqis are increasingly disillusioned and angry at the United States, the public here is also increasingly unhappy.

Only one-third of US respondents now say that Iraq has been worth the costs in US lives and money. On the issue of whether Washington should withdraw as soon as possible or stay in Iraq for as long as it takes to create a stable democracy, the public is now evenly split at 46 percent on each side.

And while 53 percent of the public saw Iraqis as "grateful" for the invasion one year ago, only 38 percent see it that way now. Forty-eight percent now view Iraqis as "resentful" – almost twice the percentage as a year ago.

At the time of the invasion itself, 24 percent of the public described it as a mistake, while 70 percent said it was not. Thirteen months later, a plurality of 48 percent now believes it was a mistake, according to the survey.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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