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Iraq's rebel cleric gains surge in popularity
By Roula Khalaf in Baghdad Financial Times May 20, 2004
An Iraqi poll to be released next week shows a surge in the popularity of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical young Shia cleric fighting coalition forces, and suggests nearly nine out of 10 Iraqis see US troops as occupiers and not liberators or peacekeepers.
The poll was conducted by the one-year-old Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, which is considered reliable enough for the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority to have submitted questions to be included in the study.
Although the results of any poll in Iraq's traumatised society should be taken with caution, the survey highlights the difficulties facing the US authorities in Baghdad as they confront Mr Sadr, who launched an insurgency against the US-led occupation last month.
Conducted before the Abu Ghraib prisoners' scandal, it also suggests a severe erosion of American credibility even before Iraqis were confronted with images of torture at the hands of US soldiers.
Saadoun Duleimi, head of the centre, said more than half of a representative sample - comprising 1,600 Shia, Sunni Arabs and Kurds polled in all Iraq's main regions - wanted coalition troops to leave Iraq. This compares with about 20 per cent in an October survey. Some 88 per cent of respondents said they now regarded coalition forces in Iraq as occupiers.
"Iraqis always contrast American actions with American promises and there's now a wide gap in credibility," said Mr Duleimi, who belongs to one of the country's big Sunni tribes. "In this climate, fighting has given Moqtada credibility because he's the only Iraqi man who stood up against the occupation forces."
The US authorities in Baghdad face an uphill battle to persuade Iraqis that the transfer of sovereignty on June 30 will mark the end of the US occupation. The removal of US troops was cited in the poll as a more urgent issue than the country's formal status.
Respondents saw Mr Sadr as Iraq's second most influential figure after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most senior Shia cleric. Some 32 per cent of respondents said they strongly supported Mr Sadr and another 36 per cent somewhat supported him.
Ibrahim Jaafari, head of the Shia Islamist Daawa party and a member of the governing council, came next on the list of influential Iraqis. Among council members, Adnan Pachachi, the Sunni former foreign minister, came some distance behind Mr Jaafari. Mr Pachachi is regarded as the apparent favourite for the ceremonial post of president when a caretaker government takes over.