Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Silent majority probide hope for future of Iraq

Members of all communities have shown themselves to be increasingly supportive of non-sectarian government

By Mansoor Moaddel

The escalating violence in Iraq gives a bleak impression of that country's prospects. Sectarian conflict seems to be increasing on a daily basis, with militias massacring hundreds of Sunnis and Shiites solely on the basis of their religious identities.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that this bloodlust represents widespread sentiment among Iraqis. While neither US nor Iraqi security officials have yet found a way to tame the militias, the Iraqi public is increasingly drawn toward a vision of a democratic, non-sectarian government for the country.

In 2004 and this year, I was involved in conducting two nationwide public opinion surveys in Iraq. Contrasting the findings of these surveys demonstrates that over the two years when sectarian violence has increased, Iraqis increasingly view their fate in a national, rather than communal, context.

Over this period, the number of Iraqis who said that it was "very important" for Iraq to have a democracy increased from 59 percent to 65 percent. These same Iraqis saw a link between an effective democracy and the separation of religion and politics, as under a Western system.

Overall, those who said that they "strongly agree" that "Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated" increased from 27 percent in 2004 to 41 percent this year. Particularly significant were increases from 24 percent to 63 percent during this period among Sunnis and from 41 percent to 65 percent among Kurds. Opinion on this question within the majority Shiite community remained stable, with 23 percent strongly agreeing in both 2004 and this year.

Similarly, the survey found declining support for an Islamic state. Between 2004 and this year, the number of Iraqis who said it was "very good to have an Islamic government where religious leaders have absolute power" fell from 30 percent to 22 percent.

Declines occurred in all three leading ethnic communities: from 39 percent to 35 percent among Shiites, from 20 percent to 6 percent among Sunnis, and from 11 percent to 5 percent among Kurds. There was some increase in the number of Shiites who thought that there should be a strong religious element in national laws, the majority still opposed this.

Nationalist sentiment is also increasing. Asked whether they considered themselves "Iraqis, above all" or "Muslims, above all," this year's survey found that 28 percent of Iraqis identified themselves as "Iraqis, above all," up from 23 percent in 2004.

In the capital, Baghdad, the center of so much sectarian violence, the numbers were even more impressive, with the share of the population who saw themselves as "Iraqis, above all" doubling, from 30 percent to 60 percent.

By contrast, similar surveys in other Arab capitals find a decided tilt toward a Muslim identity. In Amman, Jordan, the most recent figure is 12 percent who put their national identity ahead of their Muslim identity. The figure is 11 percent in Cairo, Egypt, and 17 percent in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Curiously, in Tehran, Iran, the choice is markedly in favor of Iranian, rather than Muslim, identity. Among residents of the Iranian capital, the share of "nationalists" soared from 38 percent in 2000 to 59 percent in last year.

At the same time, Iraqi attitudes show a strong reaction to daily violence. Between 2004 and last year, the proportion who strongly agreed that life in Iraq is "unpredictable and dangerous" increased from 46 percent to 59 percent. The change was felt in all communities, rising from 41 percent to 48 percent among Shiites, from 77 percent to 84 percent among Sunnis, and from 16 percent to 50 percent among Kurds. At the same time, the surveys found little support among any of these three major groups for sectarian conflict.

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