A Baghdad View of the US Election

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David Furst / AFP / Getty

An Iraqi woman stands amid a throng of US soldiers as they prepare to set off on patrol after finding a cache of weapons buried in a nearby farm in the restive Diyala province.

Americans took advantage of this week's congressional hearings on Iraq to assess how well John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama handled the war issue. To Iraqis, however, all three appeared to promise the same pessimistic future; and most Iraqis seem to believe that, no matter what the campaign rhetoric is, Americans would remain in their country. Indeed, many believe that America has to remain for Iraq to survive.

At his supermarket in Baghdad, Samir Abdul Karim says, "American troops should stay in Iraq for the time being because the country can't function on its own right now. If they leave; Iraq will fall into chaos and that would be no good for the American reputation." He didn't really prefer one candidate over the other, an opinion shared even by members of parliament. Says Alia Nasayif Jasim of the secular Iraqi National Accord bloc: "As Iraqis, from what we've seen of the bitterness in the American relationship with the Middle East, we don't think it matters who holds the presidency."

Others are clear about their preferences, precisely because of what they see is the necessity of continuing America's current policy. Osama Hazim al-Shimari, a Baghdad street merchant, says: "John McCain will be better for Iraq because he's the only one who has a logical view... What do you think will happen to Iraq if America withdraws its forces? I support McCain not because he'll bring good things to Iraq, but at least what he says about withdrawing troops is honest." Kurdish legislator Bukhari Abdallah Khudur is of the same opinion because the Iraqi government is so fragile. Says Khudur: "Iraqis still do not know how to rule themselves. So any quick withdrawal of American troops from Iraq will lead to a complete collapse. If the Americans leave, what is going to keep the country stable? Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria could all enter... That is why I support John McCain."

Indeed, few Iraqis believe America will draw down troops soon, no matter what the rhetoric is. Even the allies of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who demands an immediate end to the "American occupation," expressed more apathy than a particular preference for Clinton or Obama — both of whom have called for a timetable for exiting the country. "Before each election campaign, we hear a lot of promises and slogans, but the reality after the election is something else," says Sadrist Member of Parliament Fawze Akram, who said he doubted any candidate would actually follow through on a speedy troop withdrawal.

Tahsin al-Shiekhly, spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan, which oversees police and military checkpoints in the capital, said the most important thing in the American elections is not who the President will be, but whether he or she will maintain the troop support in Iraq if the Iraqi government requests it. "The U.S. has a commitment to the people of Iraq. They liberated them and they have come to rebuild the country. Whoever the next President is — even Hillary Clinton — I don't think they will withdraw troops from Iraq," he said. But so long as that concern is met, Sheikhly said he would choose Obama. "I support Barack Obama because I think he is reliable. He is trying to fix the base of American society and trying to cleanse American foreign policy."

But Shiekhly's is a rare recognition of Obama's appeal in American politics. Most Iraqis can't see much difference. And some argued that America would never elect a black man with Muslim roots. A retired police officer, who declined to be named, is quite bitter: "This American talk of democracy and freedom brought nothing but disaster to our country. We believed American promises and we dreamed of a better future. Now I wish we had Saddam back so we could live in peace." Sana Abdul Rahman, a middle school teacher, is a little more hopeful, but desperately so: "Republican, Democrat, black, female; any person who comes to Iraq and makes it stable, I swear to God, I will die for him, give him a big kiss in front of millions and thank him. To the Americans, I say: Please keep your promises to us. We are very tired."