How Rumsfeld's Resignation Is Playing in Iraq

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If Rumsfeld was an ogre for the anti-war movement in the West, in Iraq he was never anything like a bogeyman. Only a few Western-educated politicians really understand the role of a U.S. Secretary of Defense, and what power it commands. Rumsfeld's persona — that dismissive arrogance that so infuriated his critics at home — was usually lost in translation on Arabic-language TV.

To most Iraqis, this is Bush's war, and Rumsfeld is just some guy who implemented the President's ideas. In three and a half years here, I have seldom heard Rumsfeld's name mentioned in conversations with Iraqis, whether politicians or ordinary folks. Even insurgent leaders rarely invoke his name: Rumsfeld is occasionally named in their statements and videos, but never in conversation. (Condi Rice, perhaps because she is a woman, comes up more often.) In a society long used to dictatorship, the notion that an American official other than President Bush can wield considerable power simply doesn't compute.

So while there's a certain amount of schadenfreude over his exit, the notion that Iraqis are celebrating the end of "the man responsible for Abu Ghraib" (as some Western media reports are suggesting) is vastly overstated.

There is more interest, however, in the results of the midterm elections. On Thursday, Iraqi TV stations extensively reported the Democrats' victories in the House and Senate, but scarcely mentioned Rumsfeld. Among Iraqis in the Green Zone — which is to say the political "sophisticates" — Rumsfeld's departure, taken together with the Democrats' capture of the House and Senate, can mean only one thing: a quicker withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"In America, they can use terms like 'changing course' and 'new strategy,' but in Iraq the only thing of interest is how long the American soldiers remain," says a Western diplomat in Baghdad. "The received wisdom here has been that if the Republicans lose, the withdrawal will be speeded up. [Rumsfeld's departure] only confirms that suspicion."

Whether a speedier withdrawal is a good thing or bad thing depends on whether you live in the Green Zone or in the Red Zone. In the Baghdad street, almost anybody you speak with wants the U.S. forces out — yesterday. Over and over again, opinion polls have shown that the majority of Iraqis, across the sectarian and ethnic categories, see the U.S. presence as a part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But Iraqi leaders take the more realistic view that the U.S. presence, although irksome, is necessary.

So a speedier withdrawal would be bad news for people in the Green Zone. Some see the Dems' victory and Rumsfeld's exit as the latest in a long line of bad omens, which include the creation of the Baker committee and the ever louder drumbeat of gotta-change-strategy rhetoric emanating from Washington in recent months. "There are changes coming [in America's Iraq strategy]," says Zuhair Humadi, a former general-secretary of the Iraqi cabinet of ministers. "Rumsfeld leaving is the first step."

The Iraqi government is making the usual polite noises about Rumsfeld's exit and the Democrats' victory being "an internal matter for the Bush Administration." But it, too, is trying to put a positive gloss on this week's events. Bassam Ridah, an advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, told TIME: "We're not going to make a big deal of [Rumsfeld's departure]. We're going to hope that his replacement benefits us. We're hoping the change will mean better execution of the plan to train Iraqi security forces to take charge of the security situation."

Others are more blunt. "If the U.S. withdraws, Iran takes over — it is as simple as that," says Dr. Mehdi al-Hafed, a prominent MP from former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's secular block and one of Iraq's most respected politicians. "The Americans have to ask themselves if such an outcome is acceptable to them."

The U.S. military brass in Baghdad have not yet responded to requests for comment. But a senior European commander in the Coalition forces told TIME he didn't expect a sudden change in course. "Even if there is a change of strategy, it will probably take six months to execute," he said. " This is a very big machine, and it takes time to change."

The European commander contended that, rather than the Pentagon or the White House, the main driver of a change in military strategy will be the Democratic Congress, which will have control of the purse strings. "At the end of the day, all strategy is based on the money available," he said. "And if the Congress slows the spending on Iraq, that would force us to change things on the ground."