Despite sectarian slaughter, ethnic cleansing and homicide bombs, an opinion poll conducted on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has found a striking resilience and optimism among the inhabitants.
The poll, the biggest since coalition troops entered Iraq on March 20, 2003, shows that by a majority of two to one, Iraqis prefer the current leadership to Saddam Hussein 's regime, regardless of the security crisis and a lack of public services.
The survey, published today, also reveals that contrary to the views of many western analysts, most Iraqis do not believe they are embroiled in a civil war .
Officials in Washington and London are likely to be buoyed by the poll conducted by Opinion Research Business (ORB), a respected British market research company that funded its own survey of 5,019 Iraqis over the age of 18.
The poll highlights the impact the sectarian violence has had. Some 26 percent of Iraqis — 15 percent of Sunnis and 34 percent of Shiites — have suffered the murder of a family member. Kidnapping has also played a terrifying role: 14 percent have had a relative, friend or colleague abducted, rising to 33 percent in Baghdad.
Yet 49 percent of those questioned preferred life under Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, to living under Saddam. Only 26 percent said things had been better in Saddam's era, while 16 percent said the two leaders were as bad as each other and the rest did not know or refused to answer.
Not surprisingly, the divisions in Iraqi society were reflected in statistics — Sunnis were more likely to back the previous Baathist regime (51 percent) while the Shiites (66 percent) preferred the Maliki government.
Maliki, who derives a significant element of his support from Muqtada al-Sadr, the hardline Shiite militant, and his Mahdi army, has begun trying to overcome criticism that his government favors the Shiites, going out of his way to be seen with Sunni tribal leaders. He is also under pressure from the U.S. to include more Sunnis in an expected government reshuffle.
The poll suggests a significant increase in support for Maliki. A survey conducted by ORB in September last year found that only 29 percent of Iraqis had a favorable opinion of the prime minister.
Another surprise was that only 27 percent believed they were caught up in a civil war. Again, that number divided along religious lines, with 41 percent of Sunnis believing Iraq was in a civil war, compared with only 15 percent of Shiites.
The survey is a rare snapshot of Iraqi opinion because of the difficulty of working in the country, with the exception of Kurdish areas which are run as an essentially autonomous province.
Most international organizations have pulled out of Iraq and diplomats are mostly holed-up in the Green Zone. The unexpected degree of optimism may signal a groundswell of hope at signs the American "surge" is starting to take effect.
This weekend comments from Baghdad residents reflected the poll's findings. Many said they were starting to feel more secure on the streets, although horrific bombings have continued.
"The Americans have checkpoints and the most important thing is they don't ask for ID, whether you are Sunni or Shiite," said one resident. "There are no more fake checkpoints so you don't need to be scared."
The inhabitants of a northern Baghdad district were heartened to see on the concrete blocks protecting an Iraqi army checkpoint the lettering: "Down, down with the militias, we are fighting for the sake of Iraq."
It would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Residents said they noted that armed militias were off the streets.
One question showed the sharp divide in attitudes towards the continued presence of foreign troops in Iraq. Some 53 percent of Iraqis nationwide agree that the security situation will improve in the weeks after a withdrawal by international forces, while only 26 percent think it will get worse.
"We've been polling in Iraq since 2005 and the finding that most surprised U.S. was how many Iraqis expressed support for the present government," said Johnny Heald, managing director of ORB. "Given the level of violence in Iraq, it shows an unexpected level of optimism."
Despite the sectarian divide, 64 percent of Iraqis still want to see a united Iraq under a central national government.
One statistic that bodes ill for Iraq's future is the number who have fled the country, many of them middle-class professionals. Baghdad has been hard hit by the brain drain — 35 percent said a family member had left the country.
ORB interviewed a nationally representative sample of 5,019 Iraqi adults between February 10-22. The margin of error was +/- 1.4 percent