Most of what we think about Iraq is shaped by the daily violence that plagues the country. Intelligence and military analysts debate how much of the violence is due to the presence of foreigners, though it is widely conceded that most of the attacks can be attributed to what American officials call “former regime elements,” with the Iraqi Sunni community the main pillar of the resistance. Having dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and despite numbering less than a quarter of the overall population, Sunnis, it is said, are fighting to prevent their communal interests from being overwhelmed by the majority Shi’ites and the Kurds, a distinct ethnic group concentrated in the north.
Late last year, I was an organizer of a major national survey of Iraqi public opinion that demonstrated the complexity of the country’s communal relations. To be sure, Iraqis of different ethnic or religious backgrounds are divided over many issues, but they also embrace a common national identity, as well as a desire for democracy.
To begin, we asked Iraqis to reflect on the fall of Saddam: Was Iraq better off without him? Among Sunnis, only 23% thought so. Among Shi’ites, however, 87% saw a better Iraq without Saddam. Kurds exceeded this number, with 95% claiming an improvement.
At the same time, overwhelming majorities of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’ites – more than eight out of ten – preferred to be seen as Iraqis first, believing that “Iraq will be a better society if people treat one another as Iraqis.” Strong majorities also endorsed the idea of a democratic system for Iraq.