A good article about Iraqis' feelings towards Barack Obama. Thanks IraqPundit!
In Iraq, Mixed Feelings About Obama and His Troop Proposal
By SABRINA TAVERNISE and RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
Published: July 17, 2008
BAGHDAD — A tough Iraqi general, a former special operations officer with a baritone voice and a barrel chest, melted into smiles when asked about Senator Barack Obama.
“Everyone in Iraq likes him,” said the general, Nassir al-Hiti. “I like him. He’s young. Very active. We would be very happy if he was elected president.”
But mention Mr. Obama’s plan for withdrawing American soldiers, and the general stiffens.
“Very difficult,” he said, shaking his head. “Any army would love to work without any help, but let me be honest: for now, we don’t have that ability.”
Thus in a few brisk sentences, the general summed up the conflicting emotions about Mr. Obama in Iraq, the place outside America with perhaps the most riding on its relationship with him.
There was, as Mr. Obama prepared to visit here, excitement over a man who is the anti-Bush in almost every way: a Democrat who opposed a war that many Iraqis feel devastated their nation. And many in the political elite recognize that Mr. Obama shares their hope for a more rapid withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
But his support for troop withdrawal cuts both ways, reflecting a deep internal quandary in Iraq: for many middle-class Iraqis, affection for Mr. Obama is tempered by worry that his proposal could lead to chaos in a nation already devastated by war. Many Iraqis also acknowledge that security gains in recent months were achieved partly by the buildup of American troops, which Mr. Obama opposed and his presumptive Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, supported.
“In no way do I favor the occupation of my country,” said Abu Ibrahim, a Western-educated businessman in Baghdad, “but there is a moral obligation on the Americans at this point.”
Like many Iraqis, Mr. Ibrahim sees Mr. Obama favorably, describing him as “much more humane than Bush or McCain.”
“He seems like a nice guy,” Mr. Ibrahim said. But he hoped that Mr. Obama’s statements about a relatively fast pullout were mere campaign talk.
“It’s a very big assumption that just because he wants to pull troops out, he’ll be able to do it,” he said. “The American strategy in the region requires troops to remain in Iraq for a long time.”
It is not certain exactly when Mr. Obama will arrive here or whom he will meet. Such official trips are always shrouded in secrecy for security reasons.
But as word spread of the impending visit — Mr. Obama’s first as the presumed Democratic nominee for president — there were fresh reminders of the country’s vulnerability. In the past two days, around 70 Iraqis were killed in suicide bomb attacks, despite recent gains in safety that Mr. Obama uses as one argument for withdrawal.
And despite those improvements, street interviews remain risky in Iraq. For this article, 18 people were interviewed about their opinions of Mr. Obama, in Baghdad, in the northern city of Mosul, in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, and in the Sunni suburb of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad.
Even as some Iraqis disagreed about Mr. Obama’s stance on withdrawal, they expressed broad approval for him personally as an improvement over Mr. Bush, who remains unpopular among broad portions of Iraqi society five years after the war began. No one interviewed expressed a strong dislike for Mr. Obama.
Saad Sultan, an official in an Iraqi government ministry, contended that Mr. Obama could give a fresh start to relations between the Arab world and the United States. Mr. Obama has never practiced Islam; his father, whom he barely knew, was born Muslim, but became a nonbeliever. Mr. Sultan, however, like many Iraqis, feels instinctively close to the senator because he heard that he had Muslim roots.
“Every time I see Obama I say: ‘He’s close to us. Maybe he’ll see us in a different way,’ ” Mr. Sultan said. “I find Obama very close to my heart.”
Race is also a consideration. Muhammad Ahmed Kareem, 49, an engineer from Mosul, said he had high expectations of Mr. Obama because his experience as a black man in America might give him more empathy for others who feel oppressed by a powerful West. “Blacks suffered a lot of discrimination, much like Arabs,” Mr. Kareem said. “That’s why we expect that his tenure will be much better.”
But Mr. Obama also frames the sometimes contradictory feelings Iraqis have about America as the withdrawal of troops has moved closer to the political mainstream in both countries. Already, the units brought in for the so-called surge last year have left, and the Bush administration has in recent days acknowledged the need both to transfer troops from Iraq to an ever-more-volatile Afghanistan and to recognize that a broader withdrawal is an “aspirational goal” for Iraqis.
Mr. Obama has advocated a withdrawal that would remove most combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. Despite some fears about such a departure, that stance is not unpopular here. Many Iraqis hate American forces because soldiers have killed their relatives and friends, and they say they want the troops out.
“Of course I want the American forces to leave Iraq,” said May Adnan Yunis, whose sister was killed, along with a female and a male co-worker, when they were gunned down by American soldiers while driving to work at Baghdad International Airport three weeks ago. “I want them to go to hell.”
After the killings, a statement by the American military describing the three employees as “criminals” who shot at the soldiers inflamed Iraqi officials even more. In a rare public rebuke of the American military, the Iraqi armed forces general command described the American soldiers’ actions as crimes “committed in cold blood.”
For General Hiti, who commands a swath of western Baghdad, the American military is a necessary, if vexing, presence. He ticks off the ways it helps: evacuating wounded Iraqi soldiers, bringing in helicopters when things go wrong, defusing bombs, getting detailed pictures of areas from drone planes.
But the issue of withdrawal is immensely complex, and some of the functions mentioned by General Hiti would not be affected under Mr. Obama’s plan. The senator is calling for the withdrawal of combat brigades, but has said a residual force would still pursue extremist militants, protect American troops and train Iraqi security forces.
In negotiations on the future troop presence, both sides were initially focused on concluding a long-term security agreement. But the Iraqi government is now rejecting that and has focused solely on a temporary agreement to begin next year after the United Nations mandate that serves as the legal basis for the American military presence expires.
For weeks American officials had insisted that widespread Iraqi objections to the long-term pact were merely overheated words from Iraqi politicians. Now, they acknowledge that they underestimated Iraqis’ fears of acquiescing to what the Iraqis see as a colonial relationship that would allow American forces to indefinitely operate permanent bases under special laws.
“The Iraqis have a real political issue here,” said one American official, who said the Iraqis viewed any deal that would replicate the broad powers Americans now have “as a scarlet letter.”
But for some Iraqis the American presence remains the backbone of security in the neighborhood. Saidiya, a southern Baghdad district, was so brutalized by violence a year ago that a young Iraqi television reporter who fled thought he would never come back. But a telephone call from his father in December persuaded him to return. An American unit had planted itself in the district, helping chase away radicals. The family could go out shopping. They could drive their car to the gas station.
“The Americans paved the way for the Iraqi Army there,” said the young man, who married this year. “If they weren’t there, the Iraqi forces could not have taken control.” Even so, he agreed with Mr. Obama’s plan for a faster withdrawal. American forces “helped the Iraqi Army to get back its dignity,” he said. “They are qualified now.”
But Iraq is now a complex landscape. Some areas are subdued, and others are still racked by violence and calibrating troop presence will be tricky.
Falah al-Alousy is the director of an organization that runs a school in an area south of Baghdad that was controlled by religious extremists two years ago. Former insurgents turned against the militant group, but local authorities still rely heavily on Americans to keep the peace; the Iraqi Army, largely Shiite, is not allowed to patrol in the area, Mr. Alousy said.
“Al Qaeda would rearrange itself and come back, if the Americans withdraw,” he said. As for Mr. Obama’s plan for withdrawal, “It’s just propaganda for an election.”
Most Iraqis dislike the fact that their country is occupied, but a few well-educated Iraqis who have traveled abroad say they would not oppose a permanent American military presence, something that Mr. Obama opposes. Saad Sultan, the Iraqi government official, said his travels in Germany, where there have been American bases since the end of World War II, softened his attitude toward a long-term presence. “I have no problem to have a camp here,” he said. “I find it in Germany and that’s a strong country. Why not in Iraq?”