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Daily Column
Iraq Papers Thur: Interpreting the Elections
Obama President: the Reactions of Iraq's Leaders
By AMER MOHSEN 11/05/2008 5:30 PM ET
The headlines of Iraqi and Arab papers – as in most of the world today – were dominated by the news of the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. Doubtless, the elections were watched closely in every world capital, but the identity of the coming President had a special significance for Iraq.

Given the dependence of current Iraqi elites on US presence and protection, different Iraqi leaders identified their interests and fortunes with different candidates. Reportedly, Talabani and Barzani, as well as a significant portion of Kurdistan’s public, were hoping for McCain to win. Pro-US politicians who regard themselves as beneficiaries of the Bush era are obviously nervous about a change of course in Iraq by the coming administration – and how these changes will affect them.

Hours after the announcement of Obama’s re-election, the Office of the Presidency released a statement that was obviously meant to reassure the Iraqi establishment, claiming that US policy in Iraq will not change under Obama. The head of President Talabani’s office told reporters that the SOFA agreement will not be affected by the new President; and that changes in Iraq policy under Obama will “be only technical.” (The Presidential release was contradicted by SIIC MP Jalal al-Deen al-Sagheer who was quoted in Az-Zaman as saying that the context of SOFA’s negotiation will be radically changed.)

Pro-Talabani al-Mada followed a similar line, with a headline stating that “no surprises” will face Baghdad with the coming of Obama, adding that Iraq “welcomes” the election of the Democratic candidate. Curiously, government-owned Al-Sabah kept its coverage of the American elections neutral and sparse in recent days, avoiding showing any preference between the two candidates. Today, Al-Sabah devoted a short front-page story to the election, relaying the reactions of most Iraqi political factions to the elections’ results.

Formally, most Iraqi officials welcomed the new President, said the government paper; with President Talabani sending the customary telegram congratulating him and wishing for “further deepening and development” of relations between the two countries under his mandate.

Shi'a pro-government officials, in specific, may have reason for optimism. One of the major dilemmas of the ruling Shi'a parties during the last three years was balancing their historic links to Iran with a fiercely anti-Iranian Bush administration. Maliki and SIIC officials are most likely imagining a new role for themselves as the future brokers of Iran-US negotiations under the Democratic President. These sentiments were clearly expressed in the reaction of SIIC MP Jalal al-Deen al-Sagheer, who commented that Obama’s election was positive because of “(Obama’s) penchant for dialogue ... especially with the countries of the region such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.”

Kurdish disgruntlement with Obama’s election was expressed through Fareed Asrad, a leading figure in the PUK and head of the “Strategic Studies Center” in the party. Asrad was quoted by Al-Sabah as saying that “we would have preferred to deal with an administration that constitutes a continuity (to the Bush administration.)” But he added that there is no reason for pessimism, with the prospective of regional war receding with Obama’s election, Asrad said.

Sadrists, meanwhile, asked for the very thing that Foreign Minister Zibari was railing against: a quick withdrawal from Iraq. According to Az-Zaman, Sadrist officials reminded Obama of his promises to withdraw US forces from the country if elected. Contra the local media, Az-Zaman’s international edition, focused in its headline on Obama’s mention of “Americans awaiting the return of their sons from Iraq” in his post-election speech.

Lastly, Iranian threats to down US helicopters entering Iranian airspace received a lot of attention in the press. The Iranian Army released an official statement alleging that US choppers have been flying on patrol routes that are extremely close to the Iranian borders. The statement called on the US Army to keep its airplanes at a safe distance, warning that the Iranian military “will respond forcefully” to any transgressions. The Iranian statement was released hours after the announcement of Obama’s election.


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