The escalating violence in Iraq gives a bleak impression of that country’s prospects. Sectarian conflict seems to be increasing on a daily basis, with militias massacring hundreds of Sunnis and Shiites solely on the basis of their religious identities.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that this bloodlust represents widespread sentiment among Iraqis. While neither American nor Iraqi security officials have yet found a way to tame the militias, the Iraqi public is increasingly drawn toward a vision of a democratic, non-sectarian government for the country.
In 2004 and 2006, I was involved in conducting two nationwide public opinion surveys in Iraq. Contrasting the findings of these surveys demonstrates that over the two years when sectarian violence has increased, Iraqis increasingly view their fate in a national, rather than communal, context.
Over this period, the number of Iraqis who said that it was “very important” for Iraq to have a democracy increased from 59% to 65%. These same Iraqis saw a link between an effective democracy and the separation of religion and politics, as under a western system. Overall, those who responded that they “strongly agree” that “Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated” increased from 27% in 2004 to 41% in 2006. Particularly significant were increases from 24% to 63% during this period among Sunnis and from 41% to 65% among Kurds. Opinion on this question within the majority Shiite community remained stable, with 23% strongly agreeing in both 2004 and 2006.