Ordinary Iraqis greet Obama with a shrug

Times Staff Writers

During his brief visit to Iraq, Barack Obama has been greeted by busloads of Iraqi cameramen vying for shots of his arrivals and departures at meetings with government officials.

But on government-sponsored Al Iraqiya television Monday, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee received second billing to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s departure for Europe. Only Al Hurra, the U.S.-sponsored channel, led with the story.

The situation has been similar on the streets of Baghdad, where Obama’s visit has been duly noted but is not the No. 1 thing on people’s minds.

Iraqis tend to be jaundiced about American politics and skeptical that the differences between the presidential candidates have anything to do with them.


“If either McCain or Obama visits Iraq, it would be for campaign purposes, and therefore at this point in time it won’t have any effect on the situation in Iraq,” said Khalil Ibrahim, 34, a perfume shop owner.

Obama has gained cachet in Iraq with his proposal for a 16-month timetable to withdraw U.S. troops.

Just before his arrival, that plan touched off an international media storm when a German magazine quoted Maliki as saying that period seemed about right, one day after he and President Bush had agreed to a nonspecific “time horizon” for withdrawal.

Maliki’s spokesman quickly issued a clarification saying the prime minister had been misquoted and was not endorsing Obama. On Monday, the same spokesman told reporters that Iraq’s vision was for withdrawal by the end of 2010.


But the flap hasn’t generated much excitement in the streets. Iraqis have more immediate concerns -- and long memories.

“I remember Iraqis being very hopeful that Clinton would lift the sanctions [against then-President Saddam Hussein’s regime] when he came to power in the ‘90s,” said truck driver Amer Abdullah, 38. “But history will tell us that this was not the case.”

“I just hope that the Iraqi government will have the sense not to shut down streets and enforce a curfew,” said clothes vendor Ali Aboud, 26. “That’s probably the only effect it could have on us, and it would be devastating.”

Aboud thought Obama might be a good candidate for Americans, but he had no preference himself.

“I couldn’t care less if either of them visited Iraq,” he said. “They [the Americans] practically own this place. They’re occupying the country, after all, and besides, they’re doing it for their own benefit, not for the Iraqi people.”

Iraqis’ perceptions of Obama often parallel their own political affiliations and their views on the presence of U.S. troops in the country.

Nassar Rubaie, a member of parliament in the bloc of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr, had an especially cynical analysis of the U.S. presidential campaign, characterizing any outcome as nothing more than “tactical change.”

“The nature of the U.S. elections will not affect the political situation in Iraq,” Rubaie said. “On the other hand, the situation in Iraq has a great effect on the U.S. elections. The candidates are concentrating on the situation in Iraq . . . to win the elections.”


A lawmaker from the Kurdish Alliance, Ali Hussein Balo, had the opposite view.

“As Kurds we think that Iraq has been liberated by the Republicans and Bush, so we prefer to continue the same policy to end the problems in Iraq,” Balo said

However, ambivalence best describes the feelings of many Iraqis, both in and out of government, about the U.S. military presence.

“I agree that the Iraqi government and its security forces have made lots of progress during the last several months,” said Ahmed Adnan, 29, sitting behind the desk of a construction contractor in the Jadriya neighborhood.

“But this tends to be overstated by the media,” Adnan said. “I still think that the situation could suddenly revert because Iraq still needs a long time to heal.”


Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.