A tough Iraqi general melted into smiles when asked about Sen. Barack Obama. "Everyone in Iraq likes him," said the general, Nassir al-Hiti...
BAGHDAD — A tough Iraqi general melted into smiles when asked about Sen. 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 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.”
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Thus in a few brisk sentences, the general summed up the conflicting emotions about Obama in Iraq, the place outside America with perhaps the most riding on its relationship with him.
There was, as 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 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 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 Obama opposed and his likely Republican opponent, 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, Ibrahim sees Obama favorably, describing him as “much more humane than Bush or McCain.”
“He seems like a nice guy,” Ibrahim said. But he hoped that 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 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 — Obama’s first as the presumed Democratic nominee for president — there were fresh reminders of the country’s vulnerability. In the past two days alone, around 70 Iraqis were killed in suicide bomb attacks, despite recent improvements in safety that 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 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 Obama’s stance on withdrawal, they expressed approval for him personally as an improvement over Bush, who remains unpopular among broad portions of Iraqi society five years after the war began. No one interviewed expressed a strong dislike for Obama.
A fresh start
Saad Sultan, an official in an Iraqi government ministry, contended that Obama could give a fresh start to relations between the Arab world and the United States. Obama has never practiced Islam; his father, whom he barely knew, was born Muslim, but became a nonbeliever. 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,’ ” 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 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,” Kareem said. “That’s why we expect that his tenure will be much better.”
But 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.
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 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 two co-workers, 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 described the American soldiers’ actions as crimes “committed in cold blood.”
The key to security
For Hiti, a former special-operations officer who commands an area 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 Hiti would not be affected under Obama’s plan. The senator is calling for the withdrawal of combat brigades, but has said a residual force would still pursue extremists, protect American troops and train Iraqi security forces.
For some Iraqis, the American presence remains the backbone of security in the neighborhood.
Saidiyah, 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,” the young man said. “If they weren’t there, the Iraqi forces could not have taken control.”
Even so, he agreed with Obama’s plan for a faster withdrawal. American forces “helped the Iraqi army to get back its dignity,” he said. “They are qualified now.”
Most Iraqis dislike the fact that their country is occupied, but a few well-educated Iraqis who have traveled abroad say they would not object to a permanent American military presence, something that 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?”
Network anchors to cover
Obama’s trip overseas
WASHINGTON — Three network anchors will travel to Europe and the Middle East next week for Sen. Barack Obama’s trip, adding their high-wattage spotlight to what is already shaping up as a major media extravaganza.
Lured by an offer of interviews with the Democratic presidential candidate, Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric will make the overseas trek, meaning that the NBC, ABC and CBS evening newscasts will originate from stops along the route and undoubtedly give it big play.
John McCain has taken three foreign trips in the last four months, all unaccompanied by a single network anchor.
Obama has “proven adept at generating excitement,” says David Folkenflik, media correspondent for National Public Radio. He said the anchors hope “a little bit of that excitement will rub off on their newscasts if they can convey an American phenomenon abroad, if that’s what it turns out to be. Senator McCain is not as magnetic a figure in that way.”
The plan is for Williams, Gibson and Couric interviews to be parceled out on successive nights in different countries, giving each anchor a one-day exclusive.
Information from The Washington Post was included in this report.