Saturday, September 04, 2004

Sistani most popular Iraqi leader,US pollsters find

By Donald Macintyre in Baghdad
31 August 2004

Ayatollah Ali-al Sistani, who halted the three weeks of fighting in Najaf, is the most popular public figure in Iraq, says a poll which shows a deep undercurrent of respect for religious parties ahead of campaigning for elections planned for January.

Even before the three-week battle for control of Najaf, Iraq's most venerated Shia cleric came just ahead of leading figures in the interim Iraqi government and well ahead of Muqtada al-Sadr, the man he ordered to lay down his arms last Thursday night.

But Sadr, a leading figure in agitation for a US pullout from Iraq, was high the league table of public figures, with 57.19 percent of Iraqis viewing him positively before his gunmen fought coalition and Iraqi forces in the holy city.

The confidential poll, for the International Republican Institute, an offshoot of the US Republican Party and chaired by Senator John McCain, is one of the most comprehensive surveys of Iraqi public opinion since the fall of Saddam Hussein 16 months ago. It shows that most Iraqis see the restoration of a full electricity supply as their primary concern in reconstruction of the country; The biggest group regard crime as the issue most affecting them, and the ability to maintain "order and stability" is the key factor by which they will judge the political parties.

The survey, seen by The Independent after being shown to several Iraqi political parties, was done at the end of July and is a snapshot of opinion a month after the handover of sovereignty. But at its heart are complex and sometimes contradictory attitudes on the role of religion in the future of the country.

The Islamic parties Dawa, SCIRI, and the IIP are viewed most positively by potential electors and 29 per cent - the biggest single group - believes religious figures will make the best candidates in the elections, ahead of university academics (24 per cent), party leaders(16 per cent) and dissidents against the former regime (5.25 per cent) Almost 70 per cent of those polled agree with the proposition that Islam and sharia should be the "sole basis" of all laws, and 70 per cent say they would prefer a "religious" state. Only 23 per cent would opt for a secular one.

But only 4.74 per cent regard a party's religious ties as a key factor by which it will judge whether to vote for a political party. compared with nearly 20 per cent who regard stability and order as the key criterion. Even fewer, 4.52 per cent and 4.28 per cent, respectively say they will judge a party according to whether it is from their own religious or ethnic group.

The latter finding on ethnicity suggests sectarian rivalries between groups, including Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, may be a less potent electoral factor than has sometimes been assumed.

But despite the reflexive emphasis on the importance of sharia, a total of 68 per cent say that they would prefer politicians to be "pragmatic" compared with only 26 per cent who value "principled" politicians most. And 63 per cent would prefer them "modern", to 18 per cent "traditional." Some analysts will see this as strong evidence that Iraqi public opinion does not favour a fundamentalist religious state on the model of Iran.

That is supported by the huge popularity of Ayatollah al-Sistani who even before his authority was enhanced by his role in ending the battle for Najaf had 73.98 per cent approval ratings, and who is widely believed not to favour a strict Islamic state in which clerics play a leading political role.

One of the most striking figures in the survey is that 80 per cent of potential electors have not yet identified with a particular political party, a finding which suggests a continuing and potentially dangerous vacuum, but also that parties which do not yet have a profile among the nascent Iraqi electorate may have everything to play for. Dawa, and to a lesser extent SCIRI, (who both have "very positive" ratings of more than 23 per cent) have a high profile and are seen to have borne the most savage impact of their long-standing opposition to the Saddam regime.

Sadr's rating was notably high - at least before the events of the past month - the biggest single group of voters (44 per cent) are less likely to vote a party because it has a militia compared with a mere 7 per cent who say they would be more likely to vote for such a party.

Another striking finding is that 84 per cent value highest in politicians the characteristic of "mature and experienced", compared with only 11 per cent who want them "dynamic and youthful". Seventy per cent would rather see their politicians as "deliberative" than "decisive", which got 26 per cent.

The personal ratings show that Ghazi Al Yawer, the country's President, is strongly or "somewhat" approved by 72 per cent of electors, which may suggest Iraqis are not yet used to the idea that the Presidency is a much more honorific post than others. Iyad Allawi, the Prime Minister, is at 72 per cent while the figures also show a striking popularity for Ibrahim Jaffari, the moderate Islamist vice president who publicly criticised the government's handling of the Najaf crisis.

Abdel Aziz al Hakim, the leader of SCIRI and brother of the Shia leader Mohammed al-Bakr Hakim, murdered a year ago, is at 61.53 per cent, and Adnan Pachachi, whose Iraqi Independent Democrats has yet to acquire a high profile, has personal approval ratings of 46.5 per cent.



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