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Guest Opinion: In Baghdad, few changes expected from Obama

Guest Opinion: In Baghdad, few changes expected from Obama

BAGHDAD - Political leaders here expect to see few changes in American policy after the coming change of administrations in Washington, despite the fact that President-elect Barack Obama made withdrawal from Iraq one of the cornerstones of his campaign.

They argue that the current political uncertainty in Iraq, coupled with the threat of an emboldened Iran playing a larger role in the region once American forces withdraw, as two conditions that are likely to limit the next president's options.

"The security situation in Iraq is still fragile, and can't survive the American withdrawal from Iraq," warned Wael Abdul-Latif, a member of parliament with the secular Iraqi National List.

And while Washington may be anxious to cut back on its military expenditures, especially given the current global economic crisis, Abdul-Latif said the United States will be forced to maintain a substantial presence on the ground in the country as long as Iran is seen as a threat.

"Things in Iraq won't change unless Washington finds radical solutions for Iran," he said.

Dealing with Iran

Ibrahim al-Sumaidai, a political analyst in Baghdad, agrees that Washington's attitude to Tehran and the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, will in large part determine America's continued involvement in Iraq. He said he thinks the new administration will attempt to limit Iran's influence inside Iraq.

Abd Albarie Zebari, a member of Iraq's foreign affairs committee, said he is familiar with Obama's call for Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own governance and protection. Still, he doesn't expect the president-elect to revamp current policies sharply.

The one campaign promise that does resonate with most Iraqi politicians, however, is Obama's pledge to set a definite date for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months.

"We aspire for more than a withdrawal," said Faiza Babakhan, a former member of parliament and women's rights advocate. "We're looking for radical change. We want to get Iraq's sovereignty back, to have the Iraqis responsible for their own affairs and to launch investment and economic projects that have been agreed upon with the Americans."

Among Kurds in the north, many take a pragmatic view of the arrival of the new administration.

"The Bush administration did not overthrow Saddam Hussein for the sake of the Kurds, nor would Obama delay withdrawing the U.S. forces to protect the Kurds," said Salih Omar Isa, a political scientist at Salahadin University in the northern city of Erbil.

Kurds look to Biden

Of greater concern to them is how the new administration attempts to resolve the dispute over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is currently contested between Kurds and Arabs.

They think the arrival of Vice President-elect Joseph Biden may offer them some hope. Biden has been a longtime proponent of creating a federal system in Iraq, which would give Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds more political control over areas where they are in the majority. That is a view widely favored by Kurds in particular.

Such a partition "may not come to fruition at the moment" but Biden's mere presence in the administration "remains a comfort for Kurds," Isa said.

Basim al-Shara, Zaineb Naji and Frman Abdul-Rahman are journalists in Iraq who write for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Web site: www.iwpr.net.

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