Iraqis worry about Obama, while many GIs celebrate

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2008 

BAGHDAD — Iraqis didn't dance in the streets or hold late-night viewing parties to herald the election of a new president of the United States. Many didn't have electricity to follow the television coverage of Barack Obama's ascent to president-elect.

Their fate, however, is intertwined with that of the United States, which has occupied Iraq for more than five years, and U.S. decisions will help determine their future. For the first time since President Bush sent troops to topple Saddam Hussein, disband the Iraqi army, help install a new government and then confront the daily violence that these actions unleashed, a new leader and a different party will take power in the United States.

"It gives us hope that this will open a door for us as a people, a door towards relief," said Faisal al Khazraji, 69, as he sat in a cafe on Rasheed Street. The local council member in Baghdad, who'd recently survived a magnetic bomb attached to his car, received a flurry of text messages and phone calls of congratulations on Wednesday morning. "The elected American president is the president of Iraq, and I hope he will make his promises true about withdrawing from Iraq," Khazraji said.

Around him were the ornate balconies of one of the oldest places in the capital, a street where towering concrete blast walls today line the perimeter to protect people from car bombs.

However the U.S. power shift may raise hopes, it also underlines Iraqis' sense of powerlessness.

"We have seen nothing positive from any American president, and McCain and Obama are two faces of one coin, one policy," said Hameed Kamil Hilal, a 65-year-old retired government employee in the southern oil hub of Basra. "But we hope that there may be one person who has a correct course and inclination so that he will present the world with something good."

The change is disconcerting for the Iraqi government, which must complete negotiations on a long-term security pact before Obama becomes president. Many Shiite Muslim Iraqi politicians had supported Obama's call for withdrawing U.S. troops within 16 months of his inauguration; the security pact would give them another year. Privately, however, most officials who attained power with the support of the Bush administration worry about the difficulties of proceeding without a U.S. blank check.

At the new U.S. Embassy in Iraq, a sprawling 104-acre property that will be home for U.S. officials when they hand back Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, Ambassador Ryan Crocker spoke to a crowd of Iraqi politicians, journalists and U.S. officials about the election of an African-American.

"Iraq has come a great distance in a short period of time," he said. "Just as history was made last night in the United States, so, too, are Iraqis writing their own history. . . . Like America Iraq will achieve great things, and it will do these things through elections."

Some U.S. troops had stayed up all night waiting for the election outcome, which came just after 7 a.m. in Baghdad.

"I'm really proud to be an American today," said Kevin Brooks, a 38-year-old staff sergeant from Florence, S.C., who's with the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. "Our country has come such a long way. It's incredible."

Brooks, an African-American, woke up at 3 a.m. to watch the news at a recreation hall in Camp Taji.

"I just wish my own grandmother was here to see this," he said.

Errol Watson, a 34-year-old staff sergeant from Georgetown, Del., stayed up all night.

"I knew he'd win, but I'm still shocked," Watson said. "It's pretty huge, especially for people here. . . . Obviously an Obama win means we could be going home sooner, and I think everybody here wants a (withdrawal) timeline."

Caleb Morris, a 21-year-old specialist from Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., also waited hours by the television for an outcome.

"Even if a lot of guys here aren't paying attention, I think it still means a lot to them," he said. "This is going to affect how long we deploy, how long troops stay here, where we go next, all that stuff. It's important."

For other soldiers, however, Election Day was like any other day in Iraq.

In the cafeteria, some turned their chairs to watch the news when Obama's win was announced. Others paid more attention to their eggs and bacon.

Sgt. 1st Class Oliver Wallace, 40, from Ocean Springs, Miss., was waiting to see a doctor at the clinic as election results were coming in.

"It doesn't really matter to me either way," Wallace said. "It's not going to change anything for me today, right?"

(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy in Baghdad, Yasseen Taha in Suleimaniyah, Ali al Basri in Basra and Jamal Naji in Fallujah contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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