There was bad news and good news for the United States in a poll of Iraqis conducted
in early September for the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy
The poll, which was conducted by D3/Systems/KA Research, oversampled Sunnis, which
could distort results, since opinion in Iraq divides sharply along religious/ethnic
The bad news is 78 percent of the 1,150 Iraqis polled think the U.S. presence is
causing more violence than it's preventing; 71 percent want U.S. troops to leave
within a year, and 61 percent approve of attacks on U.S. troops.
The good news comes in three parts: The first is that al Qaida is a lot more
unpopular than we are. Ninety four percent of Iraqis including 77 percent of
Sunnis, for whom al Qaida claims to speak disapprove of the terror group.
The second is that support for the Iraqi government is pretty strong. Sizable
majorities say the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is doing a good job
(63 percent); and have confidence in the Iraqi police (71 percent) and army (64
percent). Ninety six percent disapprove of attacks on Iraqi security forces.
The third is that Iraq's majority Shia have much more favorable views of Prime
Minister Maliki (86 percent) and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (95 percent) than they
do of the Iranian-backed radical Muqtada al Sadr (51 percent). Only 45 percent of
the Shia polled view Iran's influence in a positive light. (Kurds and Sunnis have
overwhelmingly negative views of Sadr and Iran.)
The bad news garnered the headlines. The Washington Post's lengthy story on the
poll mentions none of the good news at all.
Another bit of good news was at this writing reported by exactly one newspaper, the
New York Sun. Among the documents captured when Abu Musab al Zarqawi was killed
June 7 was a letter to the al Qaida chieftain from another al Qaida bigwig,
"Atiyah." It was released to the public by Iraq's national security adviser on
The letter, which was written on Dec. 11, 2005, is an admonition to Zarqawi to stop
"Know that we, like all the Mujahidin, are still weak," Atiyah wrote. "We are in
the stage of weakness and a state of paucity. We have not yet reached a level of
stability. We have no alternative but to not squander any element of the
foundations of strength, or any helper or supporter."
So what does all this mean?
First, it's plain we've worn out our welcome.
Second, there is little likelihood al Qaida could take over when we leave. The poll
indicates just about everybody hates these guys, and they've sustained heavy losses.
Atiyah thought al Qaida in Iraq was in a state of weakness and paucity last
December. Since then, Zarqawi's been killed and a number of key subordinates have
been killed or captured, six in September alone. The new leader of al Qaida in Iraq
(a job for which I suspect it's tough to get life insurance) said Thursday more than
4,000 foreign insurgent fighters have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion.
The more serious danger to Iraq now comes from its neighbors, chiefly Iran, but also
Turkey and Syria.
"One of the main reasons why we think we need an American presence, even symbolical,
in the country, (is) to prevent our neighbors from attacking us," Iraqi president
Jalal Talabani said Sep. 27.
The Iraqis polled have a rosier view of the capacities of Iraqi security forces than
does the Iraqi government, or the U.S. military. Fifty three percent say they'll be
strong enough to protect Iraq on their own within six months.
That's not reasonable. But the Iraqi army and police are getting larger and more
capable with each passing month. I now think the benefits of setting a timetable
for the withdrawal of American conventional units exceed the liabilities of doing
so. Neither the Iraqi nor the American publics will stand much longer for an
The deadline should be flexible, but a deadline should be set. The Iraqis aren't
ready to stand on their own yet, but at some point the training wheels must come
off. We need to remember the advice Lawrence of Arabia gave to British officers
during World War I:
"Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably
than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win
it for them."