Iraqis Weigh in on US Election

This piece first aired in October, 2008, as part of the show, “Changing of the Guard.”

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    HOST: This is War News Radio. When U.S. voters go to the polls on November 4th, the world will be watching. These days, the economy is the biggest issue in the minds of many American voters. In Iraq, though, only one issue really matters — the war. Elizabeth Threlkeld and my co-host, Jess Engebretson, spoke with a number Iraqi civilians and politicians. They looked into how the election debate over the war is playing in Iraq and what a new U.S. administration will mean for the country.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Almost every night when Tahseen, a Baghdad lawyer, comes home from work, he turns on his TV to catch up on the U.S. presidential race. “Race for the White House” is the name of a popular news program in Iraq that covers the ins and outs of the American election — including one recent soundbite from Sarah Palin in the vice-presidential debate.

    TAHSEEN: They talked about what she accused Biden, when she said that Biden wants the U.S. to raise the white flag, the flag of defeat, when he wants to run away from Iraq. They say the Republicans want to stay forever in Iraq.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: That “white flag” comment captures a clear distinction that most Iraqis feel divides the two presidential candidates – will the U.S. stay or go? Reactions to this question are anything but uniform. This summer, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed to throw his support behind Senator Obama’s plan to have combat troops out of Iraq by the Summer of 2010. But Tahseen isn’t so sure that’s what Iraq needs.

    TAHSEEN: Sometimes I thought the U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Iraq. But when I saw the weakness in Iraqi forces I thought the American troops should stay in Iraq.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Not everyone is as plugged in to the election as Tahseen, and few have more than a basic understanding of the candidates’ proposals for the war in Iraq. Public opinion polls of Iraqis indicate that most favor Senator Obama’s plan to gradually draw down U.S. forces in the country. Hameed Mousa, Iraqi parliamentarian and head of the Iraqi Communist Party, is part of that majority.

    HAMEED MOUSA: Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want to have a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. He has also said that it is necessary to set up a timetable for the withdrawal from Iraq, hand in hand with an increase in the Iraqi military and security forces. This approach is positively received by the majority of Iraqis.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: But many remain concerned that Iraq simply isn’t ready to go without the support of the U.S. forces. Raad Ommar, an American working in Baghdad as the CEO of the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has fears about the U.S. and Iraqi troops that provide security for employment conferences he organizes.

    RAAD OMMAR: I think the Iraqi security forces are doing a good job, much better than ever before. But you always are afraid in the back of your mind if the Americans are not around, is this stuff going to go on like it is today, like I see it in front of me.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: A related aspect of the candidates’ plans that Iraqis focus on is the question of moving troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. Adeel Hanagloo, an Iraqi Kurd, opposes Senator Obama’s plans to shift forces away from Iraq.

    ADEEL HANAGLOO: Not good thing to move soldiers away from Iraq, because if American soldiers go from Iraq, Iraq will be finished.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Mathmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian, recognizes these concerns, but he feels the Iraqi government is using them to buy time and avoid tackling the tough issues.

    MATHMOUD OTHMAN: I think the best thing would be to have a timetable and gradually get out and try to build Iraqi forces — train them, help them, arm them.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Othman’s argument mirrors one of Senator Barack Obama’s central policy statements on Iraq, that only a timetable for withdrawal would pressure Iraqi legislators to make much-needed political progress. While parliament did recently pass a key bill — the long-awaited provincial election law — they did so without resolving crucial issues like the status of Kirkuk. Would a date certain for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops be enough to push the political process forward? Raad Ommar isn’t convinced.

    RAAD OMMAR: I don’t think the Iraqi government, no matter what the pressure is, is going to be able to somehow overnight become capable overnight of doing this. They’re just not there. For many reasons. They’re just really inept, they’re corrupt, they’re changing people a lot in the ministries so you might be talking with one guy one day and tomorrow he might be gone.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Fundamental to this debate is the level of security in Iraq. Both presidential candidates cite dramatic reductions in violence levels in Iraq as a reason to support their plans — Senator McCain because this shows the continued counterinsurgency strategy and troop presence he advocates is working, and Senator Obama because he believes U.S. troops can now safely draw down forces in Iraq. But security in Iraq is never a sure thing, and an uptick in violence in recent weeks calls into question the stability of the country. Reports indicate that the forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate warns of simmering ethnic and sectarian disputes in Iraq that could once again lead the country into a downward spiral of violence. Divisive issues like the status of Kirkuk, the Shi’a-led government taking over the Sunni Awakening movement, and lingering Iranian influence remain unresolved. Othman, the Kurdish Parliamentarian, wants to see the candidates take a closer look at today’s Iraq before they decide on tomorrow’s policies.

    MATHMOUD OTHMAN: I think the Iraqi government should see both candidates, probably have a negotiation with them. Not only coming to Iraq to see the Green Zone, but before making their new policy on Iraq they should consult the Iraqi people. They should be in contact with the Iraqi people, not only the government, and then try to shape up their policies on Iraq.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Ultimately, though, the new U.S. president will have to consider more than the concerns of Iraqis like these. The real task of the new commander in chief will be to balance them with America’s broader strategic interests in the region. For War News Radio, I’m Elizabeth Threlkeld.