Iraqis’ state of mind 16 years after US invasion

Both the distrust and the corruption leave a gap for extremist religions to gain a foothold in Iraq and for terrorism to increase.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Endless frustration. A demonstrator holds a frame as others gather during a protest in front of the governorate building in Basra, March 7. (Reuters)
Endless frustration. A demonstrator holds a frame as others gather during a protest in front of the governorate building in Basra, March 7. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Polls in Iraq indicate people worry they can’t trust anyone and they say the government is corrupt. Experts in Washington said that could lead to another opportunity for an extremist stronghold in Iraq.

“This is one of the most worrying issues in Iraq for me — the distrust in others,” said Munqith Dagher, CEO of the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies in Baghdad. “Right now, no one trusts no one.”

The latest poll stated that 11% of Iraqi respondents said they could trust other Iraqis, down from 40% in 2013 before the attempted takeover by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Also in the 2019 survey, 93% of polled Iraqis said corruption has spread. In addition, 33% of respondents said they trust the prime minister, 29% expressed trust in the president and 17% said they trust the judicial system. Fewer than 20% of those asked said they believe Iraq has a democratic system.

Both the distrust and the corruption leave a gap for extremist religions to gain a foothold in Iraq and for terrorism to increase, said Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A Burke chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington.

“One of the key warning signs is corruption,” Cordesman said. “The higher the rating of corruption, the higher the correlation in the rise of terrorism.”

Cordesman and Dagher spoke about the poll April 8 in Washington.

Dagher and his team have conducted thousands of face-to-face interviews in Iraq since soon after the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

He said Iraqis have generally had a negative attitude about the US-led invasion in 2003, which meant the new government couldn’t gain the trust of the Iraqi people. This led to a political vacuum and the only groups able to step in were religious in nature.  Iraqis, however, lost faith in religious organisations as political leaders when sectarian violence increased and led to the attempted takeover by ISIS.

The latest survey indicated that that 78% of Iraqi asked said the country was going in the wrong direction. In 2005, 62% of Iraqis said the country was going in the right direction.

Though some Iraqis initially saw promise with the end of Saddam’s regime, things quickly changed. “They thought they would be an oasis of democracy,” Dagher said. “‘We will be State 51.’ There was a lot of hope.”

However, polls soon indicated that 53% of respondents said the United States wanted to “occupy Iraq and plunder its wealth,” while 25% stated the United States wanted to fight Islam, 15% said the United States wanted to divide Iraq and 15% said the United States wanted to achieve democracy. By 2004, 84% of Iraqis participating in the survey said they considered the United States an “occupying force.”          

In 2005, almost 50% of Iraqis polled said the country’s situation was better without Saddam and in 2019, 47% stated the same opinion. In 2005, 27% said the country was worse without Saddam; now, 35% do. This makes it difficult for the Iraqi government to build trust, Dagher said.

Dagher and his team said that since Iraqis lived through the public executions, crucifixions, kidnappings and slavery of ISIS, they say they are more likely to want a secular government.

In 2004, most Iraqi respondents said they wanted law to be based on sharia but in 2019, 87% of Sunnis, 69% of Kurds and 68% of Shias surveyed said it was better to separate religion from politics.

“This is a good sign,” Dagher said.

Overall trust in religious institutions dropped from 80% to 41%, poll data indicate.

Iraqis said they are less worried about security. In 2004, 72% of Iraqis asked said security was their main concern. In 2019, 21% cited security as their main concern. Instead, 47% cited corruption, followed by 32% of Iraqis concerned about unemployment. That’s a significant and important change, Dagher said.

In 2009, 97% of Shias and 90% of Sunnis asked said they felt safe in their neighbourhoods; in 2014, 10% of Sunnis said they felt safe in their neighbourhoods, while 77% of Shias stated that they felt safe.

“This is why Daesh [an Arabic acronym for ISIS] was able to take over these neighbourhoods,” Dagher said, adding that ISIS, using brutal methods, could bring safety to Sunni areas.

In 2018, Dagher’s team said 88% of both Sunni and Shia respondents said they feel safe in their neighbourhoods.

“Security is improving in a very good way in the last couple of years,” he said.

Trust in Iran as a reliable partner sits at 32% overall, the poll results indicated, down from 50% two years ago. However, 49% of Shias asked said they trust Iran. Conversely, 40% of Shias said the United States is a reliable partner, with 42%, including 72% of Kurds, saying they overall trust the United States.

Until recently, Dagher said Iraqi officials had no interest in his polls. Today, they are “happier with the methodology when it makes them look good” but they’re willing to listen.

“This is one of the blessings of Daesh: The government started to listen to us,” he said. “Right now, I am going to Baghdad every month to present some of the data. It’s early to say they are listening but they receive some of the red flags.”