Pollsters: A New Danger in Baghdad

<?xml:namespace prefix = v ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml” /><?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /><?xml:namespace prefix = w ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:word” />We have, for what it is worth, the first opinion poll to come out of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The British polling firm YouGov was retained by the conservative British weekly The Spectator and independent television's “Channel 4 News” to conduct a poll among ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad to find out what they thought of the war and the American occupation. The results are being spun in the U.K. as bad news for America, but there is every reason to doubt that interpretation.

Peter Kellner, YouGov's chairman, summed up the poll in The Spectator as follows:

Baghdad is on a knife edge. Three in four of its residents say the city is now more dangerous than when Saddam Hussein was in power. Two in three fear being attacked in the street. Most think that we went to war to grab Iraq's oil and/or to help Israel. Yet despite these deep concerns, only a minority opposes the American and British invasion, and as few as one in eight want the invaders to leave the country straight away. They want the occupying troops to restore normality and then hand the country back to the Iraqis. In effect, the people of Baghdad are telling the Americans, “You say you came to make our lives better. You need to prove you can — and fast.”

Is this the case? To be frank, we can't be sure. YouGov would probably not have been most polling experts' first choice to conduct the poll. They made their name in the U.K. by conducting Internet panels that confounded the critics by producing polls that closely mirrored actual election results. Some experts in the science of polling believe those results were pure luck. Others think they might be on to something. Yet it should not be surprising to learn that the Baghdad poll was not conducted over the Internet.

Instead, the polling company briefed amateur interviewers to go out onto the streets of Baghdad and conduct a face-to-face survey. There is no detailed demographic analysis of Baghdad that would allow any polling company to construct a representative sample of Baghdadis, so the company just picked likely looking candidates off the street whom they hoped would give a reasonable cross-sample of the population. One British polling expert I spoke to on condition of anonymity said that while he did not have enough information to be sure, he thought the poll was unscientific, “to put it mildly.” He likened it to a straw poll and therefore statistically worthless. Kellner's conclusions, therefore, cannot be validated.

Yet even if we give YouGov the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the results are broadly representative of strains of Baghdadi opinion, the results don't necessarily bear out Kellner's conclusion.

Of the 798 people surveyed, 397 said that the powers were right to wage war against Saddam. Of these, as many said that the main reason for the war was liberation as thought it was to secure oil supplies. Only seven percent of those who thought the war was right are hostile to the Anglo-American forces, and half of them think that their life is better today than it was one year ago, with almost two-thirds thinking their life will be better in a year's time and 70 percent being optimistic for five years' time. Almost half want and expect Iraq to become an Anglosphere-style democracy, although about a quarter want and expect enlightened Islamic rule instead. Again, almost half believe the liberators should stay for a few years, but most want the transition to Iraqi rule to begin soon (as indeed it has).

A different picture emerges from the 218 people who were prepared to say that what the Coalition did was wrong. Almost 70 percent of those thought that the main reason for the invasion was to help Israel. Almost half feel hostile towards the troops. A quarter of them would prefer Saddam back and 70 percent feel their life is worse now than it was under Saddam. Yet even these people are mildly optimistic about the future. More believe their life will be better in five years' time than believe it will be worse, although there is no way to know whether this is due to a perverse optimism that Saddam will return (about 26 individuals among those surveyed believe this will happen).

The difference between these two groups is instructive. While about 80 percent of each group was suffering power cuts, and about two-thirds feared attacks on the streets, there were substantial differences in their other complaints. Significantly more people who thought the war was wrong were likely to complain of danger of attack in the home or workplace, of a lack of clean drinking water, of a lack of medical supplies, of a lack of clean washing water, of a shortage of food, that their business had closed, or that their schools had closed. It is possible that part of the resentment for the war is because of a genuine difference in experience. If that is the case, then overcoming these logistical problems should make more Baghdadis support the war and occupation. If, on the other hand, opponents of the war are deliberately exaggerating their difficulties, then the battle for hearts and minds will be a tough one, but perhaps we should be less eager to credit tales of woe.

It is also interesting that manual workers—presumably those most at risk from infrastructure problems—say that they have fewer problems. Only 58 percent complained of danger of attack on the streets, compared with 76 percent of professional/ managerial types. Only 16 percent complained of lack of clean washing water, compared with 29 percent of professionals. It may be that Saddam's former apparatchiks are merely voicing their distress at their loss of privilege.

This suspicion might be lent further credence by looking at the problems people say they are facing according to the main motive they ascribe to the war. Those who felt the war was about liberation were at times half as likely to complain of problems as those who blamed Israel (19 percent naming lack of medical supplies compared with 46 percent, for instance).

So, if we are to believe the survey at all, we can say that it shows a Baghdad that is either in dire need of infrastructure improvements to shore up faith in the liberating powers, or a Baghdad where there is a substantial claque of Baathist sympathizers who resent their loss of privilege and are liable to exaggerate their woes to western journalists and pollsters. If by believing the results of a poll carried out in less than ideal circumstances we make the wrong assumptions about the real state of Iraq, we may end up endangering our strategy and our troops more than we thought.

The Spectator's editor, Boris Johnson MP, claimed that the polling company had a “fundamental responsibility” in carrying out the poll. It is possible that the way it is being interpreted is fundamentally irresponsible.