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Poll Shows Iraqis Wary about Western-Style Democracy - 2003-12-11

Half of all Iraqis say democracy is a Western way of government that won’t work in Iraq. That is according to a poll conducted by Zogby International, a leading American public opinion research company. The polling was carried out before the extreme violence of November when 79 American soldiers were killed in Iraq. Still, seven out of ten Iraqis surveyed said they would be somewhat better off or much better off five years from now, reflecting what analysts say is a sense of hope in the troubled nation. VOA’s Serena Parker has more in today’s Focus.

Despite the grim situation on the ground, almost 70% of Iraqis expect Iraq to be a better country five years from now. “Seven in ten Iraqis said they would be somewhat better or much better five years from now,” says John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International. “This reflects what we find in all the Arab countries where we poll - a sense of hope if not optimism, but more so a sense of hope.”

Mr. Zogby was recently in Washington, to lead a panel discussion about fighting and winning the battle for Iraqis’ hearts and minds. The Center for Strategic and International Studies sponsored the panel. John Zogby took the opportunity to interpret the findings of his company’s opinion poll of Iraqi citizens. Not surprisingly, it shows that Iraqis are divided as how to best achieve a stable, prosperous country. The split is most obvious when Iraqis are broken down by religion.

When asked whether democracy could work well in Iraq or if democracy is a Western way of doing things that will not work, only 38% said they thought democracy would work. However, when the democracy question was broken down by religious affiliation, 45% of Shia said they thought it could work in Iraq as compared to 26% of Sunni Muslims, who are now offering the most resistance to the U.S. presence.

Nimrod Raphaeli, an Iraqi-born scholar who works as a senior analyst at the Middle East Media Research Institute, says there’s a logical reason for the Shia support of democracy: “The Shia community wants to ensure that any system that is introduced will not marginalize them again. They want a system that will ensure that their majority will be clearly reflected in the institutions that will emerge after the end of the occupation.”

Perhaps that is why nearly a quarter of Iraqi Shia said they would like Iraq to base its new government on the U.S. model, where a majority rules but minority rights are respected. John Zogby says the U.S. model was the top choice among all Iraqis but the kingdom of Saudi Arabia wasn’t far behind.

Many Iraqis are ambivalent or hostile toward democracy and the American political system. They associate it with American and Western decadence says Thomas Melia, director of research at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. Mr. Melia traveled to Iraq in July on behalf of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization working to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide.

While there he held a series of discussions with groups of 10 to 12 people who were asked probing questions about Iraq’s future government. They said they wanted security, order, and morality from their government. They fear democracy won’t allow the government to maintain sufficient control.

“So there’s a strong anxiety about insecurity and criminality in the community,” Mr. Melia says. “There is also a deep unease about indecency, licentiousness, what they’ve heard about Western democracies. It especially comes up in discussions about the role of women, and daughters, and family. There’s this strong sense of unease about what they generally see as the licentiousness of Western democracies in which there are no moral values prevailing.” Thomas Melia says the Iraqis in his discussion groups see Islam as the solution to an out-of-control Western democracy. That doesn’t mean they don’t want the right to elect their leaders and express their opinions.

“People say, ‘We need some framework for goodness for giving us guidance and structure.’ And for most people they want Islam in their lives,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they don’t want elections and politics and rights and law and all those things, but they also want Islamic values as a framework for doing the right thing and for making other people do the right thing.”

According to the Zogby poll, only 32% of Iraqis said their country should have an Islamic government, while 60% want people to be able to practice their religion of choice. Among Iraqi Shia, 66% support a secular government. However, John Zogby says the West should not let the numbers mislead them. A theocratic-Islamic government like the one in Iran could come to power in Iraq.

“One of the things I’ve learned in almost 20 years in this business is that there is frequency or majority opinion and there is intensity,” Mr. Zogby says. “That’s the issue. An intense minority that organizes itself well and brings its folks out to the polls can win an election, especially in the midst of some kind of disarray. And so yes, on one hand I suppose you can be encouraged by the fact that the Shia do appear to be more secular. On the other hand, there are a substantial minority that are not. And there are leaders who can create some concerns about democracy too soon.”

The Bush Administration has promised to hand over power to the Iraqis by June 30, 2004. That is in keeping with Iraqi opinion. Sixty-five percent want the coalition forces to leave Iraq in six months to a year, according to the Zogby poll. And 60% of Iraqis think they should be responsible for setting up a new government in Iraq and not the American and British.

John Zogby says while Iraqis are eager to take control of their own destiny, they are somewhat cynical about the transition plan. “Clearly the notion of a U.S.-British occupation is not working,” he says. “So long as there is a perceived U.S. occupation, that stands in the way of the transition that legitimately needs to be done.”

John Zogby says coalition forces should expand to include more Arab nations, a move he thinks would give the occupation greater legitimacy. It would have the appearance of an oversight body rather than an occupation force. But Thomas Melia of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University says he isn’t sure bringing in more Arab nations would really help.

“We asked people which other countries are friends of the Iraqi people,” he says. “And we found our groups kind of looking around the room at each other saying ‘friends of the Iraqi people? We don’t have any friends. Saddam invaded most of our neighbors. We don’t have any friends.’ So we’d push it and say well what about Arab nations? Are there some Arab nations that are your friends? And somebody would say ‘Syria.’ People would say out loud as a question ‘Saudi Arabia? No, no.’ So there was a sense of not having any friends in the world. Then when we’d ask who are the enemies of Iraq in the world and then people couldn’t stop talking. ‘Well there’s Israel, there’s the U.S., the U.K., there’s Iran.’”

Surprisingly, Thomas Melia says Iraqis put the United Nations in the enemy category along with the United States and Britain. The Zogby poll backs this up with 69% of Iraqis saying they think the U.N. will hurt rather than help Iraq over the next five years. With attitudes like these, analysts say the American and British cannot simply go back to the U.N. for legitimacy. Instead, they will have to change Iraqis’ opinions about their occupation by making real improvements in security and infrastructure.