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Polling in Iraq: Who's Right?

Bush says 70 per cent of Iraqis see their lives going well, but MoveOn.org says most Iraqis want US troops out. Both sides are right, up to a point.

December 22, 2005

Modified: December 22, 2005

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Summary

 

President Bush says a large majority of Iraqis think things are going well and expect them to get better. But wait, a new TV ad from the liberal group MoveOn.org says most Iraqis think US troops should get out. Who's right?

In fact, both are correct – as far as they go. But each presents an incomplete and misleading picture of Iraqi public opinion, which is more complex than either side portrays.

For example, the most recent poll shows that while nearly 65 percent of Iraqis oppose the US presence in Iraq, only 26 per cent want US troops to "leave now. " The rest generally prefer that US forces remain until a new Iraqi government is in place, at least, or until security is restored or until Iraqi troops can operate on their own.

Analysis

 

In a televised address  from the Oval Office on Dec. 18, President Bush said that “seven in ten Iraqis say their lives are going well, and nearly two-thirds expect things to improve even more in the year ahead.”

MoveOn Political Action Ad
"Polls Show"

Announcer: A shopkeeper in Baghdad. A family in Mosul. Kurds. Shiites. Sunnis.
(On screen: images of Iraqis) 
Announcer: Some are glad we came. Some aren't. Iraqis rarely agree on anything. But, a recent poll shows that most Iraqis think our troops should leave their country.
(On Screen: The Capitol Building with the words: "Call your Representative: (202) 225-3121"
Announcer: Their election is over, yet George Bush doesn't have an exit timeline. So it's up to Congress to bring our troops home. Call your representative today.
MoveOn.org Political Action is responsible for the content of this advertisement

The next day, Dec. 19, MoveOn.org Political Action released a new ad entitled "Polls Show" that said “a recent poll shows that most Iraqis think our troops should leave their country.”  MoveOn said the ad will run in the districts of six Republican House members: Heather Wilson of New Mexico, Jim Gerlach, Curt Weldon and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Dave Reichert of Washington.

Iraqis: Life is good & getting better

Bush drew from results of a poll released on Dec. 12. It was sponsored by ABC, Time magazine, the British Broadcasting Corporation and several other foreign media outlets. It was conducted by Oxford International Research.

It showed 71 per cent of those Iraqis who were polled, when asked how "things are going in your life these days," said either "very good" or "quite good." 

And when asked how things will be in their lives a year from now, 64 per cent said either "much better" or "somewhat better."

So Bush's optimistic figures were accurate, but he ignored another facet of Iraqi public opinion - the unpopularity of US forces there.

Iraqis: Yankee go home! But not quite yet. 

The MoveOn ad, saying "most Iraqis think our troops should leave their country," also is supported by the ABC/Time /BBC poll. It found that 65 per cent of Iraqis said they either "somewhat" or "strongly" oppose the presence of coalition forces in Iraq.

What MoveOn ignores is that most Iraqis don't want the US to leave immediately.

The poll asked "How long do you think the US and other coalition forces should remain in Iraq?" The results:

  • 26 per cent said "leave now."
  • 19 per cent said "remain until the Iraqi government elected in December is in place."
  • 16 per cent said "remain until the Iraqi security forces can operate independently."
  • 31 per cent said "remain until security is restored."
  • 3 per cent said "remain longer but leave eventually."
  • 1 per cent said "never leave."
  • 4 per cent expressed no opinion.

The interviews were conducted in October and November, before Iraq's December election. The results are still being counted, and a new government should be in place within weeks. That means – according to this poll – that 45 per cent of Iraqis would like the US to leave fairly soon. That's a high number, but not "most."

The 'Secret' British Poll

MoveOn also cites another "poll" in support of its ad. According to the press release  the ads are based on a report  by the London Sunday Telegraph on Oct. 23. The Telegraph reported a "secret" poll commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence and conducted by an Iraqi university research team. The Telegraph said that they had "seen" it – but full results were not published.

The Telegraph said the poll showed 82 per cent of Iraqis "strongly" oppose the presence of coalition forces – a much higher figure than any of the other Iraqi polls published to date. The 82 per cent figure has be en cited uncritically by Democrats including Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and party chairman Howard Dean.

But that "poll" is dubious at best. The British government won't confirm or deny whether such a poll actually exists, or comment on the accuracy of the figures the newspaper reported. The Telegraph gave no information on how large the sample was, or what the statistical margin of error might be, or even exactly what questions were asked. Without such information there's no basis on which to judge how reliable such a poll might be. The margin of error in the ABC/BBC poll, for example, is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, and the sample size was 1,711. The exact wording of each question is reported.

In an email to FactCheck.org, MoveOn also cites a Zogby Poll from January 2005 and an Oxford Research Poll from June 2004. Both show majorities of Iraqis opposing the presence of US forces in their country, though the polls are by no means "recent."

Iraq: A complicated picture

Neither the optimistic picture presented by Bush nor the pessimistic view reported in the MoveOn ad accurately paints the full complexity of Iraqi public opnion, at least as measured by the recent ABC/Time /BBC poll.

For one thing, there is a great gap in opinion between Sunnis and Shiites: 86 per cent of Shiites polled say things are going well in their lives, while only 43 per cent of Sunnis do. Asked how things are going in the country as a whole, 53 of Shiites say "good" but only 9 per cent of Sunnis say the same.

It may surprise Americans to learn that 63 per cent of Iraqis say they feel "very safe" in their own neighborhoods, despite almost daily reports of bombings. But that includes 80 per cent of Shiites, and only 11 per cent of Sunnis. Asked about confidence in the Iraqi army, 87 per cent of Shiites said they felt confident, compared to 37 per cent of Sunnis.

Iraqis report strong economic improvements as well. The number of Iraqi households saying they have mobile phones has increased tenfold – to 62 per cent – since a previous ABC/Time /BBC poll was conducted in February 2004. The number of households saying they have satellite dishes has nearly tripled to 86 per cent.   Monthly income is now $263, up nearly $100 since the previous poll.

On the other hand, 54 per cent still say they have electricity for only eight hours per day or less.  Fuel is also a persistent problem in this oil-rich nation: of those Iraqis who drive, 7 in 10 say they encounter lines at the pump. Nearly half say they must wait for hours, and a quarter report waits measured in days.

-by Justin Bank

Sources

Transcript: "President's Address to the Nation ," Oval Office, the White House 18 Dec 2005

Rayment, Sean. "Secret MoD Poll: Iraqis Support Attacks on British Troops," Sunday Telegraph, 23 Oct 2005.

Langer, Gary and Cohen, Jon.  "Poll: Broad Optimism in Iraq, but Also Deep Divisions Among Groups," ABC News, 12 Dec 2005.