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Faith in Iraqi Government Falls Sharply in Sunni Regions

Faith in Iraqi Government Falls Sharply in Sunni Regions

by Steve Crabtree

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In Iraqi provinces predominantly occupied by Sunni Muslims, there has been a marked loss of faith in the government. These northern and western provinces are the same areas in which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has seized city after city. A new study, conducted just before ISIS militants took control of Mosul on June 6-9, finds that 30% of residents in this region have confidence in the national government, down from 52% in 2013 -- even as confidence holds steady in all other regions.

In this country, do you have confidence in the national government, or not? Among Iraqis by region, 2013 vs. 2014

Since 2006, when Iraq seated its first permanent government since the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni-controlled regime, the majority-Shia country has been led by Shia Muslim political factions and a Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Since then, the government has been unable to effectively address the ongoing sectarian violence, widespread joblessness, and lack of basic services that continue to make life difficult for many Iraqis. Nevertheless, prior to Gallup's 2014 survey, those living in predominantly Sunni areas were as likely as those in predominantly Shia regions to express confidence in the national government.

However, a protest movement metastasized in 2013 among the country's Sunnis, whose grievances include what they believe to be the unjust arrest of hundreds from their communities each year, the exclusion of many Sunnis from government employment, and Shia militia groups' participation in some state security operations. Clashes between government security forces and Sunni protestors further heightened tensions as the year progressed.

Maliki Approval Varies Widely in Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish Regions

Maliki is believed to have done little to work toward reconciliation between Shia and Sunni Iraqis, a shortcoming that has led some U.S. lawmakers to call for his ouster. Currently, three in 10 Sunni Heartland residents say they approve of Maliki's performance as prime minister, vs. more than three-fourths of those in the Shia-dominated regions. Among Baghdad residents, who comprise a mix of Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish Iraqis, a slight majority (54%) approve.


Notably, in the Kurdish autonomous province, antipathy toward Maliki is even greater than in Sunni areas; just 12% of Kurdistan residents approve of the way he has handled his job, while 59% disapprove. Iraq's Kurds have long been at odds with the national government over whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq should be administered by Baghdad or the Kurdistan government. On June 16, Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga claimed to have taken control of Kirkuk, ostensibly to protect the Kurdish civilians living there.

Lack of Jobs, Financial Hardship Remain Common in Most of Iraq

The current crisis in Iraq is taking place against a backdrop of widespread hopelessness among the population. Joblessness remains a huge problem; just 14% of Iraqis overall say they are currently employed full-time for an employer, while 12% are actively looking for work. There are few sizable private employers, and -- as in much of the Arab world -- public-sector jobs are coveted for the relative security they offer. A slight majority of Iraqis (52%) say they would prefer to work for the state rather than a business, while about one-third (31%) say the reverse -- helping explain why alleged discrimination against Sunnis for government jobs is such an incendiary issue.

Amid chronic instability and a stagnant job market, many Iraqis struggle to get by; 42% say there were times in the past year when they did not have enough money to buy food for themselves or their families, while 46% say there were times when they didn't have enough money to provide adequate shelter. These results vary little between predominantly Shia and predominantly Sunni areas in Iraq; only in the more developed Kurdish autonomous region are they significantly lower.

Chronic conflict and hardship have taken a heavy emotional toll on the Iraqi population. Among 138 global populations Gallup surveyed in 2013, Iraqis scored highest on the Negative Experience Index, indicating they are most likely to report feeling a range of negative emotions. Iraq is among the top three worldwide with regard to residents' likelihood to say they experienced worry (63%), sadness (54%), and anger (49%) for much of the previous day -- the only country in the top three for all three measures (though Iran and Syria are also among the top three for sadness and anger). Again, results vary little between Shia- and Sunni-dominated areas.

Top Three Countries, 2013, Experiencing Sadness, Worry, or Anger "Yesterday"

Bottom Line

Among the most alarming aspects of the current crisis in Iraq is the ease with which ISIS has been able to take control of major urban areas in predominantly Sunni regions. These regions include the country's second-largest city, Mosul, despite ISIS' relatively small numbers. Recent public perceptions offer insight into Sunnis' growing frustration with Baghdad, as well as the extent of suffering in most of the country. Iraqi leaders' efforts to unite the population against ISIS forces may be undermined among many Iraqis who would be called into combat by a feeling that they have little to fight for.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 adult Iraqis, aged 15 and older, conducted May 20-June 5, 2014. For results based on the total sample, the margin of sampling error is ±3.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Regional findings are derived by grouping Iraq's 18 provinces into the following regions:

  • Baghdad: Baghdad
  • Sunni Heartland: Anbar, Kirkuk, Diyala, Ninawa, Salah ad-Din
  • Mid-Euphrates: Najaf, Babil, Wasit, Qadisiyyah, Karbala
  • South: Basra, Dhi Qar, Maysan, Muthanna
  • Kurdistan: Sulaymaniya, Arbil, Duhok

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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