What Iraqis Think…Four Takeaways from Public Opinion Polling

On Thursday Dr. Munqith M. Dagher shed some light on public opinion trends in Iraq leading up to the current crisis.

On Thursday June 26th, Dr. Munqith M. Dagher, the primary investigator and CEO of IIACSS gave a presentation at Freedom House entitled,“ISIL in Iraq: A disease or just the symptoms? A Public opinion analysis”.

Dr. Dagher holds an impressive resume in Iraq public opinion polling. As Iraq’s most experienced pollster, he has conducted over a million interviews since the first public opinion poll in 2003 administered by IIACSS and works with prominent polling organizations like Gallup.

With interviewers and pollsters in Mosul a day before the ISIS invasion, IIACSS was able to capture sentiment amongst Sunnis towards the government leading up to ISIS’s invasion. Since then, the organization has conducted a survey and in-depth interviews with those on the ground in Mosul. On Thursday June 26th, Dr. Dagher presented this data and its implications. As an organization we wanted to highlight four takeaways from the presentation:


1)   It appears ISIS may not be in control of Mosul

Much of the media has focused on ISIS assuming that the militant group controls large swathes of territory and the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul. While ISIS is a well funded, well trained and well equipped, their numbers put the true nature of their territorial control into question.

In last Thursday’s presentation at Freedom House, Dr. Dagher made several strong points in an argument that ISIS is not in control of Mosul:

  •    First, many members of his team noted that the militants, had local dialects and extensive knowledge of Mosul.
  •   Secondly, when asked “Who is fighting in Mosul and Sunni Areas in Iraq”, respondents indicated that ISIS only made up 10-20% of the composition of all militants. In another question, only 19.5% of respondents believed that ISIS was controlling mosul.
  •  Finally, Dr. Dagher showed pictures of Mosul, in which people were shopping and smoking Hookah in cafes. Under complete ISIS control, such activities would be banned.

So what’s the likely situation on the ground? In our blog post on the Top 10 Misconceptions of the Iraq Crisis we noted the uneasy alliance of Sunni militant groups. The grouping consists of  tribal rebels, some “Moderate Islamist” militias, and six Baathist entities. Given the evidence above, these other groups are likely the ones controlling much of Mosul and its surrounding territories, not ISIS.


2)   Sunni dissatisfaction with the national and local governments was high before ISIL’s advance

Sunni dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his sectarian policies is widely recognized, but rarely quantified. Here are just a few numbers presented on Thursday and in a recent Gallup poll report:

  • In March, 85% of respondents indicated that Iraq was going in the wrong direction
  • The top concerns among Sunnis were security, sectarianism, and corruption
  • 92% of Sunnis were concerned about a civil war, compared to 65% among all respondents
  • When asked about the Al-Anbar crisis, the majority of respondents blamed the local and national government rather than ISIS
  • In May-June 2014, only 30% of residents in the “Sunni Heartland” region (Mosul and surrounding areas) had confidence in the national government, down 22 points from september-october 2013 at 52%.

These public opinion polls contribute evidence to the growing polarization generated by Maliki’s government. By the time of ISIS’s invasion into Mosul, the majority of Sunnis felt that the country was moving in the wrong direction, indicated worries about the nature of the government (sectarian, corrupt, authoritarian) and expressed an increased dissatisfaction with the government. When ISIS invaded, they captured a city filled with dissatisfied citizens who may have been happy to see the national government leave. Dr. Dagher noted that when asked why they were “sleeping with the devil (ISIS)”, many simply said that the bigger devil was the central government.

For more on public opinion before the Mosul invasion see Gallup’s most recent report on Iraq.


3)   Sunni support for ISIL is minimal and is unlikely to last

Dr. Munqith M. Dagher argued that Sunni support for ISIS was unlikely to last given two public opinion trends. First, a much higher percentage of Sunnis believe that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated. From 2004 t0 2013 support for secularism increased from 60% to 81% among respondents. Given this move away from supporting religious rule, life under a radical group like ISIS would not be tolerated willingly.

Second, many Sunnis recognize Iraq as their basis for identity, not religion. While sectarian tensions are a concern, this poll information indicates that reconciliation remains a strong possibility.


4)   US should play the role of honest broker in a reconciliation process

While the situation on the ground may be dire and complicated, presentations like these offer a little more clarity and hope to the picture. Dr. Dagher identified two problematic approaches in US discussions; the use of airstrikes/military force and complete disengagement. Airstrikes, Dr. Dagher argues, would exacerbate political tensions in the country and escalate the current crisis. On the second problem, Dr. Dagher argued that a failure to engage because it is “complicated” or “not our problem” will only lead to disastrous security consequences, particularly if ISIS and its related groups consolidate their momentum.

So what’s the other option? To conclude his presentation, Dr. Dagher offered recommendations for action:

  • Conceive new relationships between Sunni regions and the central government
  • Identify new faces with whom to engage as the current total of known politicians has de minimus legitimacy in areas controlled by ISIS
  • Make all parties including armed groups sit together and make some trade-offs
  • Strengthen moderate armed groups to get rid of ISIS and later encourage them to put their arms down.
  • Support a process of political reconciliation to address the grievances of Iraqi Sunnis

Dr. Dagher makes it clear that the United States’ role in the crisis should be political. The US should mediate, pushing for a political solution that would give a marginalized Sunni population “a reason to fight ISIS”.


For more check out the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Brief on the event :http://pomed.org/note/pomed-notes-what-do-iraqis-think/

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