An Iraqi public opinion poll to be released later this week indicates a growing number of people in the country say they support a radical Shiite Muslim cleric whose militia is fighting coalition forces.
In the survey, conducted by the year-old Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, 32 percent of the respondents said they strongly support the fiercely anti-coalition Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr. Another 36 percent said they somewhat support the cleric, even though he is being sought by the coalition for his alleged involvement in the murder of a Shiite rival, who was killed last year.
The poll numbers place the radical cleric among the three most admired figures in the country, behind the top religious authority for the majority Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the political head of one of the largest Shiite parties, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari.
Six months ago, just one percent of those surveyed said that they supported Moqtada Al-Sadr, whose forces have been battling U.S. troops for nearly two months in and around the Shiite holy city of Najaf in central Iraq.
The poll was conducted before Grand Ayatollah Sistani called for armed fighters to leave Najaf and for fellow Shiites not to join the Al-Sadr led uprising.
The latest poll was taken late last month among 1,640 people in seven provinces in Iraq.
The poll is considered impartial enough that officials from the Coalition Provisional Authority included their own questions in it. The head of the research center, Sadoun Duleimi, says the U.S.-led administration wanted questions on several topics.
?They asked about Moqtada Al-Sadr. They asked about the security situation and they asked about how the Iraqi people perceive them, whether the Iraqi people perceive them as occupiers or liberators,? he explained.
Mr. Duleimi said that Moqtada Al-Sadr's rise in popularity reflects the growing perception among Iraqis that he is not a criminal, but rather is a nationalist fighting against occupying forces.
?Nowadays, any Iraqi who stands up clearly and obviously against coalition forces and asks them to leave Iraq, the Iraqi people are going to support him,? he added. ?They are going to respect him. Unfortunately, the multi-mistakes done in Iraq, in terms of political, economic, security, social and so on, let Moqtada Al-Sadr to be a national hero, even in Sunni areas - not just in Shiite areas.?
The latest poll was conducted before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal became public, but Mr. Duleimi said that even before Iraqis saw the images of prisoners being abused, just seven-percent of those polled regarded coalition troops as liberators. This compares with about 45 percent in an April, 2003 survey, taken shortly after U.S. troops seized Baghdad.
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said that he has not yet seen the poll, but he says the reported results are similar to other reports on Iraqi public opinion in recent months.
?They want this occupation to end, ? he said. ?We think it is understandable. It is not nice to be occupied. It is not a desirable state to be in. It is not nice to be occupiers. There is nothing we like less probably than being in the position of occupier. But the third thing we see time and time again in these polls is that while they want the occupation to end, the majority of Iraqis, if you ask them specifically regarding their personal security whether they want the coalition forces to leave, they say ?no.??
Mr. Senor said that is because Iraqis recognize that their own security forces are not yet up to the task of combating what he called the "significant terrorist threat" in Iraq.
The coalition spokesman expressed the hope that the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June will demonstrate that Iraqis are once again taking control of their country, but other results of this latest poll indicate that more than 40 percent of Iraqis say they would feel safer if coalition troops left the country immediately.
The head of the research center, Mr. Duleimi, said that the poll also shows that Iraqis want an interim government that has the power to make sweeping changes after the sovereignty handover on June 30.
In listing their priorities, nearly 82 percent said that they want a government that could implement economic reforms. More than 75 percent said the interim government should have the power to replace current governors and ministers. Finally, 74 percent said government should have the power to order coalition forces to leave Iraq.