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Religious leaders ahead in Iraq poll

WASHINGTON -- Leaders of Iraq's religious parties have emerged as the country's most popular politicians and would win the largest share of votes if an election were held today, while the US-backed government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is losing serious ground, according to a US-financed poll by the International Republican Institute.

More than 45 percent of Iraqis surveyed also said they think their country is heading in the wrong direction, and 41 percent said it is moving in the right direction.

Within the Bush administration, a victory by Iraq's religious parties is viewed as the worst-case scenario. Washington has hoped that Allawi and the current team, which was selected by US and UN envoys, would win or do well in Iraq's first democratic election, in January. US officials think a secular government led by moderates is critical, in part because the new government will oversee writing a new Iraqi constitution.

"The picture it paints is that, after all the blood and treasure we've spent and despite the [US-led] occupation's democracy efforts, we're in a position now that the moderates would not win if an election were held today," said a US official who requested anonymity because the poll has not been released.

US officials acknowledge that the political honeymoon after the handover of political power June 28 ended much earlier than anticipated. The new poll, based on 2,000 face-to-face interviews conducted among all ethnic and religious groups nationwide between Sept. 24 and Oct. 4, indicated that Iraqi support for the government has plummeted to about 43 percent who said they think it is effective, down from 62 percent in a late-summer poll.

A senior State Department official played down the results. "When the interim government took over, the [poll] numbers were artificially high. It's very difficult to meet expectations when they're sky high," he said on condition of anonymity because the data are still being analyzed.

But in another blow, 1 out of 3 Iraqis surveyed faulted the US-led multinational force for Iraq's security problems, slightly more than the 32 percent who said they faulted foreign terrorists, the poll indicated. Only 8 percent faulted members of the former regime.

"We had convinced everyone -- Americans and Iraqis -- that things might change with the return of sovereignty, but in fact things went the other way," a congressional staff member said. "What's particularly damning is that the multinational force gets more blame than the terrorists for the problems in Iraq. It's all trending in the wrong way . . . and it's not likely we'll be able to change public sentiment much before the election."

In positive news for the administration, the poll indicated 85 percent of Iraqis surveyed said they want to vote in January's election.

Despite the current strife, about two-thirds of Iraqis do not think civil war is imminent, the poll indicated. Asked whether their households had been hurt by violence, injuries, death, or monetary loss over the past year, only 22 percent of those questioned said yes -- a figure that surprised pollsters and US officials.

The poll indicated that the most popular politician is Abdel Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The group was part of the US-backed opposition to Saddam Hussein and is receiving millions of dollars in aid from Iran, US officials say.

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