The British newspaper The Financial Times reported on Thursday that the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies has found more than half of 1600 Iraqis polled wanted US-led occupation forces to leave Iraq.

This figure compared with about 20% who said they wanted troops to leave in an October survey.

The nationwide poll of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds was conducted before photos showing abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US troops were made public.

According to the results, there has also been a surge in the popularity of Shia leader Muqtadar al-Sadr, whose supporters have been fighting occupation forces.

Influential politicians

Respondents saw al-Sadr as Iraq's second most influential figure after Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most senior Shia cleric.

Al-Sadr's popularity has surged
in the last few months

Some 32% of respondents said they strongly supported al-Sadr and another 36% somewhat supported him.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, head of the Shia Islamist Daawa party and a member of the US-appointed governing council, came next on the list of influential Iraqis.

Among council members, Adnan Pachachi, the Sunni former foreign minister, came some distance behind al-Jaafari. Pachachi is regarded as the favourite for the ceremonial post of president when a caretaker government takes over on 30 June.

"Iraqis always contrast American actions with American promises and there's now a wide gap in credibility," the newspaper quoted the head of the centre, Saadoun Duleimi, as saying.

Uphill battle

"In this climate, fighting has given Muqtadar credibility because he's the only Iraqi man who stood up against the occupation forces."

The poll indicates that US authorities in Baghdad face an uphill battle to persuade Iraqis the limited transfer of sovereignty on 30 June will mark the end of the US occupation.

"Iraqis always contrast American actions with American promises and there's now a wide gap in credibility"

Saadoun Duleimi,
Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies

The removal of US troops was cited in the poll as a more urgent issue than the country's formal status.

All polls in Iraq should be treated with caution given the lack of demographic information about Iraq's population.

However, the Financial Times said the centre must be considered reliable by US officials because they had submitted questions to be used in the poll.