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Daily Column
US Papers Wed: Obama's Visit
Baathist Surfaces, Violence Against Baghdad Gays, Shoe-Thrower Sentence Reduced
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/08/2009 01:57 AM ET
Well, it was different than the last US presidential visit to Iraq. Not only were no shoes hurled at Obama, but on the same day, Montadar al-Zaidi’s sentence was reduced from three years to one. All the papers chip in on Obama’s limited Iraqi trip, the voice of Saddam Hussein’s former deputy shows up on a new audiotape, and an Iraqi gay subculture that had been outing itself a little bit is slammed back underground by a series of killings.

Obama in Iraq
President Obama’s visit in Iraq wasn’t extensive enough to breed very much variance in articles covering it, but there was some. Here are the facts: he showed up at a US base near Baghdad International Airport, didn’t leave, reportedly because of dust storms (so Iraqi leaders and Gen. Odierno had to come meet him) he was cheered by troops whom he praised, spoke of Iraqi leaders needing to reconcile, and said the next year and a half "could be a critical period," and that "It is time for us to transfer to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country."

None of the articles get too in depth but all are satisfactory – each gives the main info, framed within some interpretation of where Iraq is at now, and where it could be going. The recent spate of violence makes for a perfect backdrop for news articles.

In Baghdad, Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post write the best overall story, hitting the situation on the ground in a way that actually reflected current events, opinion on the street, Iraqi leaders, US soldiers, and the particulars of the visit. It feels somewhat tailored, rather than thrown together. Also in Baghdad, Steven Lee Myers and Helene Cooper of the New York Times is the runner-up, getting everything they need to in the piece, but a little more predictable. The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman in Istanbul and Yochi J. Dreazen in Washington cover the presidential visit, but focus largely on Iraq’s challenges on the ground, naming recent Sahwa problems and the ever-present Arab/Kurd disputes. Richard Wolf and Aamer Madhani of USA Today, back in Baghdad, is split between the precarious situation on the ground and Obama’s rock-star visit to the troops. The Christian Science Monitor’s Yigal Schleifer in Istanbul misses the boat, writing an article about Obama in Turkey, taking questions about the Iraq war (among other things). The story isn’t bad, but it is so completely trumped by the actual visit to Iraq that its yesterday’s news, today.

There is a small, uncredited report in the Wall Street Journal about footage of the president meeting US troops that went missing, shot by a CBS News crew acting as the pool for the networks.
A CBS executive said Pentagon officials required the network to hand the tape to a military courier, who was to ferry it to a CBS representative outside the secure military zone so it could be transmitted to all the networks. Hours went by; no tape. No one seems to know what happened. There was talk of sandstorms and a bungled handoff.
It arrived “minutes” before the 6:30 broadcasts. No theories (conspiracy or otherwise) are offered.

More From Baghdad
Rod Nordland of the New York Times writes of events related to some of that reconciling Obama was referring to, as a new audiotape of on-the-lam former deputy of Saddam Hussein surfaced, calling for Iraqis to topple their government and return the Baath Party to power. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, whose face graces the US-distributed “deck of cards” and whose capture has a $10 million dollar bounty, has eluded capture these six years. American and Iraqi officials have made the case that Syria has provided sanctuary, and that al-Douri actively supports insurgent activity in Iraq.

Nordland effectively makes the story about the possibility for improved relations between former Baath Perty members and the government of Nouri al-Maliki. Things started to look positive some weeks ago, but chances seem to have plummeted. “The political process is the occupation’s main project, so attack it through all means available to you,” Mr. Douri said, addressing “jihadis” in Iraq.
He said a Baathist government in Iraq would seek good relations with the Obama administration and “put behind them what happened in the past.” The transcript of Mr. Douri’s broadcast, e-mailed to The Times by a Baathist-led coalition called the National Islamist Pan-Arabist Front, made no mention of a series of seven car bombs, six of them on Monday, that killed more than 40 people.

Mr. Maliki’s office released a statement late Monday blaming the Baathists, in conjunction with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, for the car bomb attacks. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a homegrown extremist group with some foreign leadership. The prime minister offered no specific evidence to link the bombings to the Baath Party but noted that attacks had occurred every April 7 since Mr. Hussein was toppled.
In the Washington Post, Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher report that, after Al-Baghdadiya television correspondent Montadar al-Zaidi's lawyers filed a motion appealing the three-year sentence he received for his athletic use of shoes, a judge reduced his sentence to one year. That’s all the new information in the article, except for Montadar’s brother, Dirgham (an advocate and spokesman for al-Zaidi) saying that, because Zaidi spent nearly five months behind bars before his conviction, he could be released as early as this fall.

The New York Times’ Timothy Williams and Tareq Meher offer a well-written story about recent killings of men and boys thought to be homosexual, mostly in Baghdad’s Sadr City. As they point out, gay and lesbian populations have never been particularly safe in Iraq, but with all the other violence, it has been overshadowed. If up to 25 people were found dead with signs attached to them reading the word “pervert” in most countries, the news would have almost certainly been more widely-covered.

As militias in Baghdad lost the prominence they enjoyed in 2006 and 2007 (though nobody else really did), a subculture of gay young men could be sometimes recognized on the street, in coffee shops, or other establishments. “Three of my closest friends have been killed during the past two weeks alone,” said a young man named Besima, whose hair is longer than most males in Iraq, and who wears earrings and light-colored makeup.
Though risky, his look is one result of the overall calm here that has allowed Iraqis to enjoy freedoms unthinkable two years ago: A growing number of women walk the streets unveiled, a few even daring to wear dresses above the knee. Families gather in parks for cookouts, and more people have begun to venture out at night.

But that has not changed the reality that Iraq remains religious, conservative — and still violent. The killers, the police say, are not just Shiite death squads, but also tribal and family members shamed by their gay relatives. (And the recent spate of violence has seemed aimed at more openly gay men, rather than homosexuality generally.) Clerics in Sadr City have urged followers to help root out homosexuality in Iraqi society, and the police have begun their own crackdown on gay men.
Those said to have killed their gay relatives out of shame is a phenomenon equivalent to the “honor killing” of females, thought to have shamed a family by indecent behavior. The article is chock-full of jarring comments, from police saying they are engaged in a “campaign to clean up the streets and get the beggars and homosexuals off them,” to the country’s most influential and revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issuing a religious decree stating that gay men and lesbians should be “punished, in fact, killed.” He added, “The people should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Review and Outlook page applauds President Obama for his “near-about-face” on Iraq, since taking office. His praising the accomplishments of US troops in Iraq while in Iraq is seen as going against his past opposition to the war, and the Journal doesn’t mind a bit.
Prior to his Iraq visit, the President was asked by a Turkish student whether his Iraq policies were fairly close in substance to George W. Bush's. "Well, just because I was opposed at the outset, it doesn't mean that I don't have now responsibilities to make sure we do things in a responsible fashion," Mr. Obama replied. We'll mark that down as a "yes."

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