The people's choice

October 01, 2006

Remember the purple fingers? It was January 2005, and they meant that elections and democracy and freedom were on the march in Iraq, at least in the eyes of the Bush administration and its supporters. The president still believes in that forward progress, and that American benevolence is making it possible. But it's a good thing for him he doesn't have to answer to Iraqi public opinion, because substantial majorities there disagree with him.

A poll taken in September for the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that 71 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. to withdraw within a year, 72 percent believe the presence of U.S. troops provokes more conflict than it prevents, 79 percent say the U.S. effect on Iraq is mostly negative, and a deeply troubling 61 percent say they approve of violent attacks on U.S. soldiers and Marines.

Those who say it was worth getting rid of Saddam Hussein still constitute a fairly hefty majority, at 61 percent, but that's as low as it has been since the U.S. invasion. It's difficult to argue that life is better now than it was under the dictator: There's less electricity in Baghdad, there's less oil being pumped, there's less potable water. Corruption is endemic. Torture is on the increase.

The Hussein regime, by various estimates, was responsible for the deaths of 15,000 to 25,000 Iraqis a year during its 23-year existence, a horrifying figure. Since the U.S. invaded in March 2003, the most conservative calculations put the annual civilian death rate at about 15,000, not much of an improvement; the reported toll for July and August of this year, if it continues, would come to 35,000 violent deaths per year.

Violence and anger are on the increase - this is the most important thing to understand. Iraq is quite rapidly deteriorating, and there is almost no reason to expect a turn-around anytime soon.

About the only good news to come out of this poll is its finding that 94 percent of Iraqis view al-Qaida unfavorably. But if this is so, it suggests that an American drawdown from Iraq would not necessarily make the country a haven for jihadists. Significantly, a majority believes that if the Americans packed up, it would force the government to be more responsible. It might, notes Stephen Kull, the director of the UM center, give the government more legitimacy than it has now.

President Bush is refusing to face facts. The longer his administration pretends that progress is happening in Iraq, and the longer it persists in a policy that alienates the majority of Iraqis and millions of other people in Muslim countries, the weaker becomes the position of the United States - not only in Iraq but around the world.

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