Barack Obama may be spending only 24 hours in Iraq, but his visit has been jam-packed with events designed to bring him up to speed on the war and to assuage any doubts among voters back home that he isn't up to the job of Commander in Chief. His day in Iraq began with a visit to Basra the Iraqi government's proudest military conquest in recent months and ended with a meet and greet for excited staff at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. After being greeted by General David Petraeus at Baghdad International Airport, Obama toured the capital via a Blackhawk helicopter with Petraeus and his two congressional traveling companions, Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Later, he visited wounded U.S. troops at a military hospital in Baghdad and held closed meetings with five of Iraq's top political leaders Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Vice Presidents Adil Abdul Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashemi and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salah. In the evening, he met again with Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Consistent with the secrecy surrounding the Senator's movements in Iraq throughout most of the day, U.S. embassy and military officials would not indicate even vaguely where Obama would be spending the night, for fear of attracting "incoming fire," according to one top U.S. military official. On Tuesday, the Senator and his delegation are expected to travel outside of Baghdad before heading to Jordan, but the specific locations have not yet been announced, according to a U.S. military official.
While Obama's trip has been getting saturation media coverage in the U.S., however, the Iraqi media has barely batted an eye. Obama's visit got only a vague mention on the local TV networks' afternoon news hours, and it failed to make the front page on any of Iraq's top newspapers. Only in Al-Dustour did an article make reference to the visit, quoting Iraqi politician (and former Bush Administration favorite) Ahmad Chalabi as saying: "Obama wants to prove that he's qualified enough to be Commander in Chief."
Indeed, while many Iraqis say they like Obama, few are optimistic about the difference he can make for their country as a result of his one-day visit, or even as President. "They are all the same Democrats and Republicans, their agenda is the same, and that is to exert American control all over the world," says Nasir al-Saadi, a parliamentarian in the Sadrist movement, which is fiercely opposed to what it sees as the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In the central Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, local Sunni community leaders and political enemies of the Sadrists say much of the same thing. "American policy does not depend on the President. When a new President comes up, he just continues the pre-set policy," says Sunni Awakening leader Ahmed Bassam. Although Obama reportedly discussed the future of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq with Prime Minister Maliki, Bassam remains skeptical. "American policy for Iraq was probably set 20 years ago," he says. "So I don't think American forces are going to leave. But maybe small things will change. Obama said on TV that if he wins the election, he will designate $2 billion for Iraqi refugees outside Iraq."
It is Obama's second trip but the Iraq that he is seeing now presents a stark contrast to the Iraq he saw as part of a congressional fact-finding mission in 2006, when sectarian civil war had plunged the country into a pit of fear and despair. Iraq's current position at a four-year low in violence could work for or against Obama. U.S. military commanders in Iraq attribute much of the calm to the success of a controversial yearlong U.S. troop surge that ended this month, which Obama opposed and McCain backed. At the same time, Obama may be able to use the reports of improved security that he is likely hearing firsthand to further bolster his calls for a 16-month troop drawdown.
Obama's stance on Iraq may be crucial to his chances in the election. Earlier this month, an ABC-Washington Post poll found that 72% of the Americans surveyed believed that McCain would be a good Commander in Chief; only 48% thought Obama would be up to the job. McCain has stressed the need for a long-term U.S. troop presence in the country until it is stabilized, though it appears that the Republican's position may now be shifting as well.
After a visit to Afghanistan this weekend, Obama said on Sunday that he wanted to focus U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the threat is higher. "I think one of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job [in Afghanistan]. ... We got distracted by Iraq," he said. The question now is whether he'll stick to that statement following his new drive-by assessment of Iraq.