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The Free Iraqi Press

Independent newspapers--and public opinion polling--come to Baghdad.

3:00 PM, Jun 3, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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ALONG WITH FREEDOM, opinion polls have come to Iraq--opinion polls and newspapers to publish them. While admittedly not yet pretending to Western polling science, the informal survey of 620 people on the streets of Baghdad taken by Al-Mu'tamar, one of the newspapers that have sprung up in Iraq in the last two months, is a landmark in itself and suggests an intriguingly nuanced pattern of opinion.

The poll, reported in the May 22 edition (and summarized here), interrogated people of miscellaneous ages and backgrounds. It found support for the war much higher now (77 percent) than before it happened (62 percent said they had been opposed). And it showed respondents supportive of coalition troops' presence--65 percent said the troops should stay, 77 percent that they had carried out no hostile acts against the population--even though a large majority found fault with the forces' performance. A full 85 percent of respondents said the troops had "procrastinated and were indifferent to their concerns and problems and failed to maintain order, punish thieves, and protect public property." Agreement was higher only on condemning the cruelty of Saddam Hussein's regime (90 percent).

Al-Mu'tamar is published by the pro-democracy umbrella group the Iraqi National Congress, long based in London. The INC's leader, Ahmed Chalabi, has just spent two months in Iraq (he came out to attend his daughter's graduation from Harvard). Chalabi's political adviser, Francis Brooke, also newly returned from Iraq, says he isn't surprised to find a sophisticated pattern of opinion.

"Baghdad is Manhattan," Brooke says. "It already has the feel of an intellectual and media and business capital. Cafes are up and running, theater productions. There's a lot of money in Baghdad and people are ready to do business. But what you mostly have is several million well-educated middle-class people. They've preserved their resources and waited for a better time. They're eager to get out and get on with it."

Al-Mu'tamar is using a printing plant that belonged to the deposed government. It's paying rent into an escrow account, Brooke says, to be turned over eventually to a new Iraqi government. It's putting out editions of 12,000 copies, aiming to increase soon to 50,000. And it's just one presence on the media scene. "Somebody counted 12 newspapers new since the invasion," Brooke says. "There are Iraqi editions of Middle Eastern papers, new student publications. Entrepreneurs and speculators are trying things."

One last finding from that poll further suggests a people genuinely thinking for themselves: Opinion is divided as to what should happen to Saddam Hussein. A narrow majority, 53 percent, said the deposed dictator should be tried in a court of law; 27 percent said he should be executed; 13 percent favored his rehabilitation "on condition of dismissing him from power"; and 7 percent gave no answer. Whether or not Francis Brooke's excited optimism about Iraq's prospects is justified, the days of lockstep submission to a brutal authority are gone.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.