Iraq: No hasty change in policy with Obama win

/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraqi officials said Wednesday they don't expect Barack Obama to withdraw U.S. troops hastily from Iraq because he told them last summer that he wouldn't make a decision without consulting them and U.S. commanders on the ground.

With violence down and the economy No. 1 on American voters' minds, the Iraqis said they believe the new president will take his time before fulfilling his promise to end the war in Iraq, which costs U.S. taxpayers $12 billion a month at a time of financial crisis back home.

Exit polls Tuesday showed that only one in 10 American voters considered Iraq their main concern in choosing a president, suggesting that Obama will focus more on the economy when he takes office Jan. 20.

"Obama has to deal with Iraq's issues in a positive way and have a sense of responsibility to correct the situation in Iraq, as well the situation inside America," said Salim Abdullah, spokesman of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament.

"We are not concerned that he will take a unilateral decision to remove troops quickly from Iraq since he needs to discuss this issue with the Iraqi government first," Abdullah said.

Skepticism surfaces
Iraqi officials were skeptical of the Illinois senator when he launched his candidacy two years ago, pledging to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration.

At the time, Iraq was reeling toward all-out civil war, with Shiite and Sunni gunmen battling in Baghdad's streets while rockets and mortar shells detonated in the Green Zone, the U.S.-protected area of central Baghdad where top Iraqi officials live and work.

The prospect of U.S. troops leaving Iraq quickly was popular among American voters but alarmed the Shiite-dominated government, which feared a withdrawal would remove its main pillar of support.

But violence receded after last year's U.S. troop buildup, which Obama opposed.

Scattered attacks still occur almost daily, with the most recent violence claiming 15 people on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said most Iraqi leaders still assumed that John McCain, who supported the troop buildup, would succeed President Bush.

Their opinions began to change after Obama visited Baghdad last July, al-Dabbagh said. He said Obama's meetings with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, convinced them he was a serious contender.

Obama also told the Iraqis that his 16-month withdrawal timetable was not rigid and that he would be willing to adjust it if necessary, several Iraqi officials said.

"He told us during his visit to Baghdad and meetings with him in Washington that he would not take any hasty decisions in this regard, and any decision that concerns Iraq would be taken after thorough discussions with the Iraqi government and military commanders in the field," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Al-Arabiya television.

Finding common ground
Meanwhile, events in Iraq have made it easier for Obama and Iraqi officials to find common ground for systematically withdrawing the U.S. force — currently at 151,000 troops — without risking a sudden plunge into chaos or a political battle in Washington and Baghdad.

Iraqi forces are doing more of the fighting, suffering more casualties and spending more Iraqi money for their own defense, though critics say they could pay a lot more.

This year, U.S. and Iraqi negotiators hammered out an agreement that would remove U.S. soldiers from Iraq's cities by June 30, with the last American troops leaving the country by 2012. The accord still must be approved by parliament by year's end when the U.N. mandate expires.

The draft agreement has drawn strong opposition inside Iraq, but government officials are hopeful that parliament can approve the pact in time for the deadline.

That would largely satisfy both Obama's pledge — and the Iraqi goal — of an orderly end to the U.S. mission.

Diminishing doubts
As the U.S. returns rolled in early Wednesday, Iraqi doubts turned to admiration, not only for Obama but for a nation that would choose a president from a racial minority — an example for a country like Iraq struggling to reconcile ethnic and religious communities.

After McCain conceded defeat, ordinary Iraqis exchanged text messages on their mobile phones, congratulating one another as if they themselves had cast ballots.

"I would like to congratulate the American people for an admirable example of democracy and elections," Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top adviser to al-Maliki told The Associated Press. "We look forward to working with him to consolidate relations between our two nations."

Iraqi officials expressed hope that a new U.S. president, not personally invested in the war, would help usher in a new relationship as the need for U.S. troops declines.

"I think there is a reality on the ground and sooner or later, Mr. Obama and his working team will see that Iraq is playing a major role in the region," al-Dabbagh said. "Iraq is a major cornerstone in the region and needs to be supported."