Sunday, March 18, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies, And Headlines

Several rightwing blogs this morning are linking to a post by blogger Tigerhawk in which he examines a new poll by a British firm about attitudes to the occupation in Iraq. Tigerhawk's analysis is based on a short article in the London Times entitled "Iraqis: life is getting better". He writes:
Iraqis seem to believe both that the "surge" is working and that security will improve still further after a withdrawal of the foreign armies...Iraqis...essentially believe the possibilities for the Petraeus plan -- we provide temporary security with the objective of creating the space necessary for the government and army of Iraq to stand without assistance, after which we substantially withdraw.

The survey also makes much of the idea that Iraqis, who have suffered enormously in the last four years, nevertheless prefer current conditions to life under reminds us how truly horrible life under Saddam must have been. It is quite extraordinary that one quarter of all Iraqis have had a family member murdered since the toppling of the Ba'athists and still they do not hanker for the way it was.
Maybe Tigerhawk should have linked to the longer Times version of that article,this time entitled "Resilient Iraqis ask what civil war?" and applied a bit more Critical thought than blind loyalist opptimism. Both articles' headlines are misleading, but the longer version gives a bit more meat to see why.

Here are some of the figures quoted in the longer version:
The poll highlights the impact the sectarian violence has had. Some 26% of Iraqis - 15% of Sunnis and 34% of Shi’ites - have suffered the murder of a family member. Kidnapping has also played a terrifying role: 14% have had a relative, friend or colleague abducted, rising to 33% in Baghdad.

Yet 49% of those questioned preferred life under Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, to living under Saddam. Only 26% said things had been better in Saddam’s era, while 16% said the two leaders were as bad as each other and the rest did not know or refused to answer.

Not surprisingly, the divisions in Iraqi society were reflected in statistics — Sunnis were more likely to back the previous Ba’athist regime (51%) while the Shi’ites (66%) preferred the Maliki government.

...Another surprise was that only 27% believed they were caught up in a civil war. Again, that number divided along religious lines, with 41% of Sunnis believing Iraq was in a civil war, compared with only 15% of Shi’ites.

...One question showed the sharp divide in attitudes towards the continued presence of foreign troops in Iraq. Some 53% of Iraqis nationwide agree that the security situation will improve in the weeks after a withdrawal by international forces, while only 26% think it will get worse.

...Despite the sectarian divide, 64% of Iraqis still want to see a united Iraq under a central national government.

One statistic that bodes ill for Iraq’s future is the number who have fled the country, many of them middle-class professionals. Baghdad has been hard hit by the brain drain — 35% said a family member had left the country.
Now, let's return to Tigerhawk's claim that Iraqis "prefer current conditions to life under Saddam." If 26% say it was better under Saddam and another 16% say it is just as bad as under Saddam then that adds up to 42%. The rest said either that they didn't know or refused to answer. The survey has a margin of error of 1.4%

Clearly a Times headline that claims life is getting better is reaching a bit on those figures, as is Tigerhawk's statement. One could just as easily (and rather more accurately) say that, according to the survey, half of Iraqis didn't think life was better than under Saddam. Certainly a clear majority of Sunnis don't think so. Perhaps what is most amazing here is that a full 36% of Shiites, more than a third, refused to say that life was better under Maliki than under Saddam despite their being oppressed and abused by the Saddam regime for so long.

Then there's that "only 27% say it's a civil war" claim - that figure is skewed by the low percentage of Shiites, only 15%, who agree that Iraq is in a civil war. It's a lot easier to claim there is no such thing when your side is winning it or when you live in a predominantly Shiite part of the South and so see no sectarian fighting. Sunnis obviously see a very different Iraq, despite many living in rural areas.

Finally, there's that claim that Iraqis support the strategy of "surge and withdraw". Only a Bush loyalist could make that leap of logic from the data provided, which only says that "a majority of two to one believe military operations now under way will disarm all militias" and that "53% of Iraqis nationwide agree that the security situation will improve in the weeks after a withdrawal by international forces". Disarming militias is not the same thing as the surge working, but even if one granted that it was, there's no guarantee the same Iraqis believe both that the surge will succeed and that the situation will improve when occupation forces leave. We don't yet know the figures on that "two to one" majority from the Times articles. (Oh, but we will...)

So then, after a moments Google searching, we turn to the actual ORB press release. There we find some additional information that shows how strongly the Murdoch-owned Times tried to spin the figures.
the poll reveals that despite the rising number of civilian deaths each month as a result of militia activity, only 27% would concede that their country is actually in a state of civil war. Opinion here is clearly divided, as 22% feel “we are close to a state of civil war but not yet in one” while 18% argue that the country is “still some way from civil war”.

Regionally, 43% of those in the Shia dominated South of the country claim “Iraq will never get as far as civil war”. This figure in the Sunni dominated north plummets to 5% where most (42%) feel the country is already in a state of civil war.

Regionally there are significant differences on attitudes towards the relationship between the security situation and the presence of troops. Nationally, one in two (53%) feels that the security situation in Iraq will get better in the immediate weeks following a withdrawal of Multi National Forces.

However, those in the South appear to be more ready to accept a gradual withdrawal than those in the North. 69% of the Shia dominated South feel the situation will get a great deal/little better, while only 10% feel it will get worse. In the Sunni north, opinion is evenly divided – 46% feel it will get better and 37% feel it will get worse.
So now we can see that the majority of Iraqis think their country is either already in a civil war or teetering on the brink of one and that only 5% of Sunnis think that a descent into civil war is something that can never happen. That's not quites so good news, is it? Given that and the fact that the majority Shiites have numbers on their side in any such war, what is surprising is that marginally more Sunnis think that the situation will still improve when occupying troops leave than not!

The press release also has a link to a pdf of the poll, which contains some more figures which are not so happy-joy-joy.

  • 22% of those questioned think the real purpose of the "surge" is to build up forces for an attack on Iran or Syria. Only a third are sure the purpose is the one stated - bringing security back to Iraq.

  • A full half of all those questioned said they had experienced the murder or kidnap of a family member, friend or colleague in the last three years.

  • In Baghdad, only 21% reported that they had experienced no such event in the last three years.

  • That "disarming the militias" question? 45% said Malikis plan would succeed, 22% said it wouldn't...but another full 26% said they didn't know whether the plan would succeed or not. That's hardly a "two to one" vote of confidence. In Baghdad, 31% of those who say Maliki's plan won't work - the most common answer - say it is because the militias are supported by the US. Clearly, there's some "hearts and minds" work still to do.

  • A full 59% of those who took part in the survey were unemployed. 32% said there was no-one in their household with a job.

  • The survey contained no questions about the success or failure of the US portion of the "surge" and no questions about whether disarming the militias would actually help or worsen security.

    All of which leaves Tigerhawk and his kin grasping at logical straws and the rest of us wondering if rose-colored glasses are standard issue for headline writers at Murdoch's London Times.

  • Update Richard at All Spin Zone has been loking at the figures too, and comes to pretty much the same conclusions I do.
    So, where does the murdochian spin of “MOST Iraqis believe life is better for them now than it was under Saddam Hussein” come from?? An ex-Fox producer’s mind who is now working for the UK Times? 49% isn’t even a majority. Ask Al Gore. But watch as Fox News spins this all over their Sunday news shows. There’s apparently even a sizeable minority of the previously oppressed Shia who feel that things were better under Saddam. Go figure.

    ...Murdoch takes hay that’s been processed through a bull, and spins it into pyrite for the Bush regime. The problem for the Murdoch empire is: fewer and fewer people are buying Rupert’s brand of “fools gold”. The vast majority of Americans, viewing the quagmire from a distance, no longer believe a word the Bush regime says about Iraq. A clear majority of Iraqis, living the quagmire every day close up and personal, never did. They wish to control their own destiny.

    And, of course, Drudge is already on board with the Murdochian spin as well…
    Update 2 Richard has cross-posted his analysis over at DKos, where some late-night wonks have been giving the actual figures some scrutiny.

    One notes that the question - "And thinking ahead, do you believe that the security situation in Iraq will get better or worse in the immediate weeks following a withdrawal of Multi National Forces?" is obviously designed to elicit as low a "yes" response as possible. Yet still, 53% of Iraqis feel the security situation will be better after we leave.

    Another commenter, Dale 145, writes:
    Presumably some people won't believe it is a civil war until each side officially declares it so. But already, 63% of Sunnis believe that Iraq is in or is close to a state of civil war:

    Iraq is in or is close to a state of civil war:
    Sunni: 63%
    Total: 49%

    But wait! It gets much worse than this! As we all know, the fighting varies in intensity throughout the country. Some spots are relatively calm, so of course perceptions of violence there are much less. Other places? Not so much peace. In Kirkuk, for example, ORB's study says that 83% believe Iraq is in or is close to a state of civil war! Over half do in Baghdad. 68% do in the North as a whole. (The Kirkuk conflict has gotten far less attention than it deserves by US media -- in part because it is much harder to field reporters there than in Baghdad.)

    Regionally (totals only):
    Iraq is in or is close to a state of civil war:
    Kirkuk: 83% (!)
    North (overall): 68%
    Baghdad: 52%

    It's even worse in looking at those in violent regions who think Iraq is still some way (away) from civil war or will never get that far. Only 5% believe this in Kirkuk! But wait, it's even worse than that! Essentially none of those surveyed in Kirkuk believe that Iraq will never get as far as a civil war. None.

    Iraq is still some way (away) from civil war or will never get that far:
    North: 16%
    Kirkuk: 5% [sic, 5%, and all of these are in the "still some way from civil war" category]

    That's right, the most striking conclusion on civil war: even the most optimistic voice in Kirkuk believes that at best civil war is "still some [ways] away". No-one believes Iraq will never get that far.

    Hardly the basis for a "Iraqis: life is getting better" headline.
    Indeed, but that isn't preventing the usual suspects from climbing onboard the spin machine, as a snapshot from the memeorandum aggregator shows. They are going to push this interpretation of the ORB poll hard. Mark Noonan at Blogs For Bush telegraph's the direction their spin is headed - "More Bad News For Democrats". And unless progressive bloggers are right there with the counter - the actual story the figures tell - to their spin then you know this will be how it plays in the corporate media.

    Update 3 In comments, a rightwinger snarkily asks "What do the Iraqis know about the hopelessness of their situation? How many of them watch CBS or read the Daily Kos?" That seems to be the best he can manage in response to the obvious way in which the uber-right are spinning the figures here. Anyway, here's his answer.

    Update 4 Mark Kraft aka insomnia has a good analysis of some things I missed, especially answers how the awnswers of Kurdish respondents affect the poll as a whole. They are much less likely to have experienced violence, far more likely to trust the occupation and they hate the current Maliki government. He also notes the following:
    although the survey polled residents in "every one of the eighteen governorates within Iraq", the choice of where they surveyed seems quite skewed. Indeed, it appears that the data gathered in Anbar province, for example, was gathered in the far west of Iraq near Ar Rutbah, with no data from cities in the Sunni Triangle, such as Fallujah, Ramadi, or Samarra. Much of the Sunni triangle is simply overlooked, even in places such as Fallujah where there is a strong U.S. presence which should allow for surveys.

    Similar issues could be raised with their Baghdad surveying. Did they go into Sadr City? I suspect not.
    In other words, the poll cherry-picked where the data would come from in an attempt to skew the results to please the (anonymous) funder of the poll. If you need further proof of this, a new survey commissioned by the BBC, ABC News, ARD and USA Today will be released on Monday. The BBC says it "paints a pessimistic picture of Iraqis' confidence in their own government and in coalition forces. Only 18% of Iraqis have confidence in US and coalition troops, while opinion is almost evenly split on whether to have confidence in Iraq's government."

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