BAGHDAD, Iraq - Sadoun Dulame read the results of his latest poll again and again. He added up percentages, highlighted sections and scribbled notes in the margins.
No matter how he crunched the numbers, however, he found himself in the uncomfortable position last week of having to tell occupation authorities that the report they commissioned paints the bleakest picture yet of the U.S.-led coalition's reputation in Iraq. For the first time, according to Dulame's poll, a majority of Iraqis said they'd feel safer if the U.S. military withdrew immediately.
A year ago, just 17 percent of Iraqis wanted the troops gone, according to Dulame's respected research center in Baghdad. Now, the disturbing new results mirror what most Iraqis and many international observers have said for months: Give it up. Go home. This just isn't working.
The prisoner-abuse scandal is only the latest in a string of serious setbacks to the U.S. administration's ambitions for democracy in Iraq. Before that, one essential political ally was lost (the country's Shiite Muslim majority) and another discredited (Ahmed Chalabi and other members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council).
A persistent guerrilla campaign is sending dozens of U.S. troops home in flag-draped coffins, and more than half the country is unemployed. Rebuilding projects the coalition started and then abandoned because the worsening security drove away contractors only add to the country's dismal landscape and dim hopes for the future.
There's little to suggest conditions will improve, at least not before the scheduled June 30 handover of limited authority to Iraqis. The unraveling occupation has failed to provide security, overhaul the economy, quell ethnic tension or introduce a legitimate government in the year it's been in power.
Still, American officials give confident, optimistic assessments of the situation from Baghdad. "The area of operations remains stable," goes the opening line to almost every news conference, regardless of whether militiamen have captured government buildings in the south or another morning car bomb has jarred the capital awake.
L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, has yet to announce an interim Iraqi government to attempt to rule until the country is stable enough for elections. Bremer has said the June 30 transfer of sovereignty is on track, despite an announcement last week that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq probably will remain at 135,000 even after a supposedly independent Iraqi government is elected next year.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said at a recent appearance in Denmark that the next Iraqi government would decide to keep U.S. troops in place.
"Obviously, because a large foreign military presence will still be required, under U.S. command, some would say, well, then you are not giving full sovereignty," Powell said. "But we are giving sovereignty, so that sovereignty can be used to say: `We invite you to remain. It is a sovereign decision.' "
Outside of officialdom, there is little appetite for allowing Americans to stay. Anyone still talking about liberation is shushed as disingenuous, especially now that the image of a Saddam Hussein statue crashing to the ground is no longer symbolic of the coalition's intentions. Instead, many Iraqis said, today's American presence is best summed up in photos of a laughing female American soldier leading a nude Iraqi prisoner by a dog leash.
Dulame's grim poll doesn't even take in the prisoner scandal's effects. It was conducted in mid-April in seven Iraqi cities. A total of 1,600 people were interviewed and the margin of error is 3 per cent. The findings, which must go first to coalition authorities, have not yet been made public.
According to Dulame, director of the independent Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, prisoner abuse and other coalition missteps now are fueling a dangerous blend of Islamism and tribalism. For example, while American officials insist that only fringe elements support the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, a majority of Iraqis crossed ethnic and sectarian lines to name him the second most-respected man in Iraq, according to the coalition-funded poll.
"I don't know why the (Coalition Provisional Authority) continues in these misguided decisions," Dulame said last week. "But if they pack and leave, it's a disgrace for us as Iraqis and for them as Americans. Their reputation will be destroyed in the world, and we will be delivered to the fanatics."
The coalition's options are dwindling. The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent think tank, released a study last week that found there is no other way to ease the mounting turmoil in Iraq "than to turn as much of the political, aid, and security effort over to moderate Iraqis as soon as possible, and pray that the United Nations can create some kind of climate for political legitimacy."
Under the current conditions, however, any government installed by an outside entity will not be recognized as legitimate - no matter how diverse it promises to be. That reflects experience with the reigning Governing Council, at best a smart group of politicians whose visions for Iraq languished under American oversight. At worst, they are power-grabbing exiles who have bowed to American demands at the expense of their constituents' beliefs.
The council triumphantly rolled out a new flag while hundreds of Iraqis were dying in the U.S. siege of the flashpoint city of Fallujah and in pitched battles with U.S. forces in a Shiite rebellion in the south. Immediately, the move drew criticism for both the insensitive timing and the pale-blue color reminiscent of the Israeli flag.
Doubts about the Governing Council's competence and legitimacy resurfaced Saturday when about 2,000 of Iraq's top scholars and activists gathered at the Babylon Hotel in Baghdad to form an anti-American political bloc. A highly diverse crowd of Islamists, Christians, secular nationalists, Baathists and communists listened as speakers demanded an immediate withdrawal of American forces and the dismantling of the Governing Council, whose members rode into Iraq "on American tanks." Even the prospect of civil war sounded better to them than a prolonged occupation.
"We'd like the Americans to go even if that means a sectarian war," Ahmed al Baghdadi, a Shiite cleric, told the cheering crowd. "It would be a war among our boys and old guys like us would be able to settle it quickly."
Others take the prospect of a civil war much more seriously. While the coalition is busy with insurgents in Fallujah and Sadr's forces in the south, Kurdish parties in the north are inflaming rival Arab and Turkmen by angling for more and more power. In most northern cities, they've taken over the police forces, city councils and oilfields. Arabs passing through northern areas report increased harassment from Kurdish authorities and their peshmerga militia.
As the most pro-American group in Iraq, Kurds face more attacks to go with their growing influence. Last week alone, a car bomb exploded at a Kurdish office north of Baghdad, and a Kurdish agriculture department official was assassinated in Kirkuk.
Iraqi scholars say the coalition increased ethnic tension by rolling out early political plans that treated Iraq as a monolithic nation. American officials, they said, came without even a working knowledge of age-old ethnic and sectarian rivalries.
Some observers have likened the embattled U.S. campaign in Iraq to a culture clash of colossal proportions. A major shift in strategy now, they said, is probably too little, too late.
"The Americans have to understand - we are a country with more than 10,000 years of history," said Hadi K. Attar, an Iraqi economist visiting Baghdad this month after 24 years of exile in Britain. "We are many communities all in one. This is not Afghanistan. This is Iraq."
Knight Ridder special correspondent Ahmed Mukhtar contributed to this report.