x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bracing for a pullout from war

The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States has met with mixed feelings in Iraq.

An Iraqi soldier reads a newspaper featuring Barack Obama on Wednesday.
An Iraqi soldier reads a newspaper featuring Barack Obama on Wednesday.

MOSUL and BAGHDAD // In Iraq's capital, cynicism. In the southern city of Basra, indifference. In the Kurdish north, renewed fear of the future. And in Mosul - currently the country's most dangerous area - shreds of hope. The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States has met with mixed feelings in Iraq, a nation whose recent past and future are both so closely tied to that of the world's only superpower. While George W Bush and his neoconservative Republican administration led America into a bloody, long-running conflict in Iraq - the Americans have been fighting here for more years than in the Second World War - many see the coming Democratic White House as leading the United States out. Not entirely, and not necessarily quickly, but there are expectations that America's footprint in Iraq is going to shrink. "Obama will end the war here, or at least he'll end American involvement in it," said Ali al Qasimi, a politics professor at the University of Basra. "Obama will get the Americans out of here and will be sending them to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The era of Iraq as an arena for terrorism could be coming to an end." Which does not mean the lot of a normal Iraqi family is going to improve, according to the 45-year old academic. "If you are a poor Iraqi there will be no real difference," he said. "I don't think anyone believes there is going to be a significant change. From my point of view, I actually think Obama will have less interest in promoting a democracy in Iraq than the Republican administration. He will want to pull out US troops regardless of the threat of Iraq becoming a Shiite dictatorship, and that could become a problem." The prospect of a dwindling US role in Iraq also alarms the Kurds. Their northern stronghold has been largely propped up by the presence of American soldiers, and the Kurdish - despite reservations - remain hugely pro-American. Many Kurds are openly supportive of Mr Bush. "Republicans are more concerned with the Iraqi issue," said Falah Mustafa, spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government. "Of course we support the new president that America has chosen and we want him to follow America's best interests." But, he added, there were concerns in Iraqi Kurdistan over some of Mr Obama's pre-election statements about getting US troops out of Iraq, comments the KRG spokesman said were seen as "disturbing". "We ask that the United States ensures that Iraqi forces are suitably qualified to maintain security in the country before any plans or schedules for US military withdrawal are made," he said. Mosul, a city in which a still-strong insurgency averages 10 attacks a day, woke up post-election ostensibly much the same way as it has every other day of the year. US soldiers on austere combat outposts went out on patrols with only passing mention of the fact they will soon have a new commander-in-chief. Supporters of John McCain were duly teased by Obama voters. One soldier muttered about the United States not being ready for a black president, but none of his colleagues seemed bothered enough to either argue or agree. The US military has been avoiding politics and the official line is that, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, they will continue to carry out their missions. No soldiers seem to expect cutbacks under Mr Obama. None will be sad to see the back of Iraq, if there is a large-scale drawdown of their forces. And none expects to be out of a job, with the campaign in Afghanistan due to intensify. Outside of the American bases, Mahmoud Othman, a Mosul politician, insisted the election of Mr Obama was "positive". "We have a man who will work to correct the massive mistakes committed by Bush," he said. "I already feel that things are better than they were. Every citizen in Iraq knows that the US president makes decisions that will affect their lives and we would rather it be Obama than Bush or McCain. "I feel we now have a great opportunity to move forwards here, for there to be some kind of new start. I am hopeful." Opponents of the US presence in Iraq said they would wait and see what decisions Mr Obama actually makes, once he assumes office. "President Obama will see continued resistance to America in Iraq just as President Bush has, for as long as US soldiers are here," said Malik al Marwani, a media adviser to the Sadrists in Baghdad. The Shiite political movement has consistently called for a total American withdrawal, and Sadr militia fighters have fought pitched battles with US troops on various occasions since the 2003 invasion. There is, however, a ceasefire that has largely held up. "America came to Iraq for strategic energy reasons," he said. "I don't expect those basic calculations will change under Barack Obama." With that caveat, the Sadrist adviser said his personal view was that Mr Obama could make real steps towards a peace in the Middle East. "The Democrats are much calmer in their foreign policy," he said. "Obama's victory is good for peace in the world and I think they are even going to look for a real and better solution to the problems in Iraq. The Republicans seemed intent on continuing the fighting here. "I think Obama understands that the resistance will only stop when the American soldiers have left." Iraq's former ruling classes, the Sunni tribes, were also insisting they would wait to evaluate Mr Obama in terms of actual policies rather than electoral rhetoric. "I'm sure we'll see a change of strategy from the new president and I want to see Obama announcing that he will stick to the promise of withdrawing US troops from Iraq by 2011," said Sheikh Mohammed al Dulaimi, leader of a Sahwa Council in Diyala. The Sahwa Councils have entered into an uneasy alliance with US forces despite continued suspicion and hostility towards the Americans among tribes. As with Mosul, Diyala province remains highly dangerous. "We have known America for years now as the destroyer of nations, a destroyer of peoples" he said. "McCain was a man of war and would have been ruthless in Iraq. Obama is more a pacifist and an intellectual. It is not always easy to say which is best for us. We will wait and see." Sheikh Dulaimi, however, insisted it was the Iraq war, and the actions of insurgents in Iraq, that were the determining factor in seeing the White House change from Republican to Democrat. "It was the Iraqis, and it is the Afghans who shook America and made it see its own weaknesses," he said. psands@thenational.ae nlatif@thenational.ae