Mercy Corps recently released a study based upon three years worth of polling and interviews in Iraq on public perceptions of the government and armed groups. The organization did polls in 2013, 2014 and 2015. This provided it with an important insight as it discovered how the change in government from Prime Minister Nouria al-Maliki to Premier Hadiar Abadi affected the populace’s perceptions. It found that Maliki’s marginalization of Sunnis, and the lack of services were the main reasons why people were upset with the government and supported armed groups.
The most interesting part of the Mercy Corps’ report was how Sunni opinion changed about the insurgency before and after the Maliki government. The organization was conducting its third year of surveying in Iraq when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost office to Haidar Abadi. That allowed it to measure how the transition in leadership affected Sunni perceptions. Most striking was that support for armed groups amongst the community went from 49% in 2014 to 26% in 2015. Part of that drop might have been due to Anbar not being included in the second survey, but even then it was such a sizeable drop that the absence of that one province could not account for the entire change. More importantly, the only major difference between the two polls was the replacement of Maliki as premier. The former prime minister was widely unpopular amongst Sunnis due to his targeting of Sunni politicians such as former Finance Miniser Rafi Issawi that led to year long protests. The security forces were also blamed for arbitrary and mass arrests, and attacked two demonstration sites in Ramadi and Hawija. This supported Mercy Corps’ thesis that it was marginalization and bad governance rather than the oft cited sectarianism that was a root cause for the rise of the Islamic State and the rebirth of the insurgency. If sect for example, was the main cause of complaints by Sunnis then they would still support armed groups after Abadi took office as he was a Shiite as well.
Sunni opinions of the government overall improved after Abadi became prime minister as well. When asked about the police, the government, security, and job prospects opinions went up around 10% each from 2014 to 2015. Electricity saw the largest increase going from 59% to 72%. Again, the change in administration made Sunnis feel better about a range of issues from the security forces to services. There seemed to be hope that Abadi would be fairer than his predecessor, and thus people’s opinions improved.
That did not mean that sectarianism and feelings of prejudice did not show up in the poll. When asked about whether the government treated their sect unfairly a majority of Sunnis and Shiites said yes. Around 80% of Sunnis believed they were not treated fairly sometimes, and about 2% said often. 40% of Shiites stated the same with around 10% adding they felt that way often. These were surprising results. It is widely accepted that Sunnis feel that the government discriminates against them, yet the vast majority only responded sometimes, and not often. At the same time, 50% of Shiites felt the same way with a larger percentage 10% versus 2% saying often. Since the government is Shiite led one would expect that community to feel that they are treated fairly if not better, but the opposite was found. Shiites might have felt that the government was too compromising with other communities to their detriment. Another possibility was that since its community runs most of the government they believed they should be treated better in terms of services, etc., but because they were not it must be because of some sort of discrimination.
Dissatisfaction with the government was widespread as Iraqis felt that problems were getting worse from 2013 to 2015. Corruption was at the top of the list going from 50% saying it was a problem in 2013 to 73% in 2015. Education went from 25% to 35%, electricity grew from 15% to 32%, health care increased from 28% to 33%, and services increased from 21% to 39%. Iraq is notorious for being one of the most corruption countries in the world. Many services have also been deficient since 2003. That’s caused several years of protests across the country with the latest starting in the summer of 2015 and continuing to the present day. The fact that so many Iraqis from different communities feel the same way offers the opportunity for cross-ethnosectarian cooperation. Unfortunately, that has not been realized as the political class is unwilling to initiate any real reforms, especially when it comes to corruption, because it would threaten its patronage networks, which it relies upon to stay in power.
The Mercy Corps surveys and another one just released by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research both complicated the sectarian narrative that dominates much of the discussion about Iraq. Both polls found the ill treatment by the government were the most important issues. For Mercy Corps, Sunni perceptions of Maliki were a determining factor in their support for the insurgency. Likewise, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that desire for a fair judicial system was the most important issue for Sunnis. Both surveys also discovered that Sunnis were relatively hopeful about the Abadi government. If the community perceived everything in strict sectarian terms than they would not think that a new Shiite premier would be any better than the last. Identity politics is obviously still a major issue in Iraq, but what these two studies highlight is that they do not always play out as many would expect. They also highlight that tackling issues that affect all Iraqis like electricity and graft would garner support across the country, but no politicians are willing to make that move because it would disturb the status quo that put them in office. Prime Minister Abadi for example, offered a round of reforms in response to the latest protests, but they’ve ground to a halt as most of the parties quickly turned on him, and the premier was trying to use them for his own gain as well. That may eventually lead the public to turn on him if he is not able to deliver on any of his promises again proving Mercy Corps’ thesis that poor government is the driving issue in the country.
Mercy Corps, “Investing In Iraq’s Peace, How Good Governance Can Diminish Support for Violent Extremism,” January 2016