In Iraqi Ears

This piece first aired in June, 2009, as part of the show, “Reaching Out.”

Listen here.

    HOST: This is War News Radio. Last week in Egypt, President Obama made good on a campaign promise to deliver a major address to the Muslim world. We now turn to Kyle Goeckner-Wald to see how that address was received in Iraq.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: If the Obama administration has its way, June 4th, 2009 will be remembered as the beginning of a monumental reconciliation process. For it was then that the President delivered his address to the Muslim world. The speech, ambitiously entitled “A New Beginning,” was delivered at Cairo University in Egypt. As the name suggests, the ultimate goal was to begin to heal the fissure between the Muslim world and America caused by decades of myopic policy and cultural misunderstandings. Many in the Muslim world feel that America’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have only worsened that fissure. For those who watched President Obama’s speech, it was obvious how the Cairo University audience received the president. One particularly enthusiastic audience member couldn’t contain his admiration for the new president:

    [Audio from Obama's speech]
    AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you!
    BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.
    (cheering and applause from audience)

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: This reaction should hardly be a surprise. The audience at Cairo University was hand-selected from nearly a quarter million students and staff. If anybody was going to be so receptive, it was the Cairo University audience. What is far less certain, however, is how Obama was received by a much tougher audience: the Iraqis. If there is one group of people who have experienced the clash between the Muslim world and America first-hand, it is the Iraqi public. America’s 2003 invasion provoked an insurgency with ties to Islamic extremists and inspired sectarian warfare. To gauge Iraqi reaction, War News Radio spoke to a number of Iraqis who saw the address. Generally, Iraqi responses seems to range from moderate cynicism to cautious optimism. Sabeeh Alkashtini, an Iraqi journalist now living in Jordan, perhaps best summarized the differing opinions:

    SABEEH ALKASHTINI (voice over): Some people didn’t care a thing about Obama’s speech. They feel that nobody cares about the Arab world, so why should they care about a speech coming from the West? One man said that Obama’s speech is just a game. Some people believe the West is a speech seller. Other people are optimistic. So there are different reactions–some optimistic and others don’t even care a single bit about the speech. I would say that about 60% of people are optimistic about the speech, and about 40% don’t even care about it.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: Despite the ranges of reaction, Iraqis tend to have one element in common: after the speech they expect Obama to be better than Bush at the very least. Alkashtini explained to War News Radio:

    SABEEH ALKASHTINI (voice over): During the US elections, when people were speculating about Obama’s victory, we said that Obama and Bush are two faces of the same coin. But Obama’s statements about withdrawing from Iraq cooled our hearts. The only thing we learned from Bush was killing and blood. That’s the only thing we got out of Bush. He brought American freedom and democracy to Iraq in the form of Pepsi cans, satellite dishes and cell phones. Our scientists have been killed, our doctors have been displaced, our people are suffering from an internal and external migration, and we lived through a civil war.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: Though Iraqis tend to have some hope in Obama, that does not mean that the speech was unanimously hailed. Mohanned Albidani, an engineer in Basra, explained that many of his fellow Iraqis did not even bother watching.

    MOHANNED ALBIDANI: Frankly, Iraqis are very busy with their lives. So the majority are not interested in this kind of speech because they say its useless. They’ve been hearing all kinds of promises, all kinds of hope giving to them by different people but nothing in action. The heat is intense here that nobody likes to watch a speech for an hour or two. They prefer to do anything useful rather than sitting and watching something they know will be something just to listen for Nothing to see any action for.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: This sentiment that Obama’s address was merely words yet to be backed up by actions is widespread throughout the Iraqi population. Even those like Mr. Albidani who were receptive to the speech had reservations.

    MOHANNED ALBIDANI: He was very sincere. But if he can change the policy as well, I’m not sure about that. He needs to take some action.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: Perhaps the biggest policy promise came when Obama reiterated his commitment to fully withdraw American troops from Iraq by 2012. The Iraqi reaction to this has been overwhelmingly positive. Mr. Albidani told War News Radio:

    MOHANNED ALBIDANI: I think that [Obama's 2012 withdrawal] is very acceptable. Because [until] then, the security situation is gradually improving. There is a major, huge difference in security situation. People work now. I can speak freely to you. One year ago, before March 2008, I couldn’t even speak to you in English in front of anyone because there was a local militia that would try and hunt people down who are working with a US agency. There is a car bomb here or a suicide bomber there. It is not a big deal because there is a major difference between then and now.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: However, other Iraqis like Mohammed Rifaah, who works for an Iraqi TV station in Jordan, are less optimistic. When asked if he thinks America will actually withdraw, he expressed his doubts.

    MOHAMMED RIFAAH: Not from all of Iraq. There is oil. They will not leave the oil.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: Despite skepticism like Mr. Rifaah’s, it seems that most Iraqis are more optimistic that the U.S. will actually withdraw. Dr. Amur Alfahyahd, dean of Baghdad University’s College of Political Science, told us that most Iraqis see recent American activity as evidence that Americans will leave.

    AMUR ALFAHYAHD (voice over): What is consolidating this [positive] reaction [to Obama's speech] is the almost daily procedures of handing over security responsibility to the Iraqi forces in different parts of Iraq. These steps have consolidated the credibility of Obama’s speech.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: Though Obama’s speech at least won some goodwill from Iraq, the administration still has a long way to go. Sabeeh Alkashtini, the Iraqi journalist now living in Jordan, is acutely aware of where Obama’s speech fell short. Four years ago he was forced to flee Baghdad after his home was destroyed by a missile.

    SABEEH ALKASHTINI (voice over): The bad thing about his speech is that he never apologized to the Iraqi people for all the blood that’s been shed, for all the wounds that we endured. Iraqis never had militias. We didn’t have such kinds of killings and explosions before. We experienced these things after the war, after the occupation. He should have at least apologized to the Iraqi people for what happened to them, killings, displacement, and injustice that were caused by the occupation forces.

    KYLE GOECKNER-WALD: For War News Radio, I’m Kyle Goeckner-Wald.