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Poll finds most Iraqis plan to vote, many optimistic about the future

WASHINGTON—Nearly three-quarters of Iraqis say they "strongly intend" to vote in next month's pivotal elections, and a small majority believe the country is headed in the right direction, according to a major new poll of Iraqi attitudes.

The poll of nearly 2,200 people across most of Iraq found a resilient citizenry modestly hopeful that the Jan. 30 elections will improve life. Iraqis said pocketbook issues such as unemployment and health care are more pressing than the bloody insurgency that claims Iraqi and U.S. lives virtually every day.

But the poll by the International Republican Institute, to be released Thursday, also uncovered worrisome signs for the elections.

Significantly fewer Iraqis living in predominantly Sunni Muslim areas said they intend to vote. The finding underlines growing concern that the elections will be seen as legitimate by Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims but rejected by minority Sunnis, who monopolized political power under dictator Saddam Hussein.

The poll didn't include the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul, which have been centers of the insurgency. But 36 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Sunni Muslims and 60 percent as Shiites, roughly in line with Iraq's religious make-up.

More than 41 percent of the Iraqis polled mistakenly believe they'll be voting for a president. Less than 29 percent responded correctly that the main election is for a transitional national assembly, or parliament.

President Bush is counting on the elections to turn the corner in Iraq, where the insurgency has killed more than 1,300 U.S. soldiers and wounded thousands more. It has also bedeviled efforts to reconstruct and stabilize the country.

But senior U.S. officials increasingly acknowledge that the election will be messy at best, particularly in areas of Sunni resistance.

The International Republican Institute conducted the poll with face-to-face interviews by Iraqi surveyors. IRI is a U.S. government-funded nonprofit organization that promotes democracy worldwide. It's one of the few independent groups to conduct in-depth scientific polling in Iraq.

The poll, conducted Nov. 24 to Dec. 5, found improvements over the last two months in Iraqis' feelings about the country's direction and, to a lesser degree, about the interim Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The survey was conducted after U.S. and Iraqi troops retook insurgent-held Fallujah, but before it became clear that the insurgency remains potent.

Nearly 54 percent said Iraq is generally headed in the right direction—compared with 42 percent in late September and early October—while 32 percent said it's headed in the wrong direction.

Of the optimists, more than 16 percent cited the coming election and 21 percent cited the toppling of Saddam's regime as the main reasons they thought the country was headed in the right direction. Of the pessimists, nearly 53 percent cited the poor security situation as the main reason for thinking Iraq is headed in the wrong direction.

More than 71 percent of those polled said they "strongly intend" to vote, and 67 percent said they believe Iraq will be ready to hold elections by the end of January, compared with 24 percent who said the country won't be ready.

"The Iraqis want to vote. They intend to participate in an election. . . . This is an important part of taking back control of their country," said John Anelli, the IRI's regional program director for Iraq.

However, in predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, only about 20 percent said they "strongly intend" to vote, compared with more than 25 percent who said they don't plan to do so.

The percentage of those who believe Iraq is headed in the right direction would have been somewhat less if areas such as Mosul were included in the survey, IRI officials acknowledged.

Mosul, where an attack on an American base Tuesday killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers, is a once-stable northern city that's become a hotbed of insurgents. Pollsters couldn't go there for security reasons.

A State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity this week, said special procedures will have to be implemented to allow voting in al Anbar province, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi. "I can't say what those will be," the official said.

The Jan. 30 elections will choose members of a 275-person transitional national assembly, whose primary task will be to write a new Iraqi constitution. Provincial councils also will be chosen.

On Iraqis' mistaken views of the elections, IRI's Anelli said that voter education efforts are increasing, adding, "There's a lot of work to be done there."

The poll also asked about Iraqis' views of some of the 107 coalitions, parties and individuals that will be on the ballot. That information, which IRI uses to help Iraqi political parties sharpen their messages, wasn't released.

The poll found nearly 50 percent of Iraqis said religion and government should be separate. Forty-two percent said religion "has a special role to play" in government, and of that smaller group, slightly less than half said either that the religious hierarchy has authority over political affairs or that supreme religious leaders and political leaders are the same.

But by a margin of 52 percent to 20 percent, Iraqis said they preferred a faith-based party to a secular party.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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