Obama Victory Alters the Tenor of Iraqi Politics
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
Published: November 6, 2008
BAGHDAD — Barack Obama may have been elected only three days ago, but his victory is already beginning to shift the political ground in Iraq and the region.
Iraqi Shiite politicians are indicating that they will move faster toward a new security agreement about American troops, and a Bush administration official said he believed that Iraqis could ratify the agreement as early as the middle of this month.
“Before, the Iraqis were thinking that if they sign the pact, there will be no respect for the schedule of troop withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011,” said Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major Shiite party. “If Republicans were still there, there would be no respect for this timetable. This is a positive step to have the same theory about the timetable as Mr. Obama.”
Mr. Obama has said that he favors a 16-month schedule for withdrawing combat brigades, a timetable about twice as fast as that provided for in the draft American and Iraqi accord.
Many Shiite politicians had been under intense pressure from Iranian leaders not to sign a security agreement. Iran, which has close ties to Shiite politicians, has feared the agreement would lay the groundwork for a permanent American troop presence in Iraq that would threaten Iran.
But now, the Iraqis appear to be feeling less pressure from Iran, perhaps because the Iranians are less worried that an Obama government will try to force a regime change in their country.
In recent weeks Mr. Ameri, who spent years in Iran and leads the Badr Corps, a onetime paramilitary arm of the Supreme Council, was one of several senior party members who appeared to be reflecting Iran’s concerns with a reluctance to endorse the pact.
Of course, given the volatile and fractious state of Iraqi politics, the security agreement could still be delayed. But with Iraqis believing that Mr. Obama, as president, would move faster to withdraw American troops, Iraqi and American officials said obstacles to a security agreement appeared to be fading.
Jabeer Habeeb, an independent Shiite lawmaker and a political scientist at Baghdad University, put it simply: “Obama’s election shifts Iraq into a new position.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus’s decision to withdraw another combat brigade six weeks ahead of schedule reinforced the assurances by Iraq’s defense minister that his troops could handle more of Iraq’s security and sent a signal that the American troop withdrawals would become a reality.
An Obama administration is also expected to shift the focus to Afghanistan. American officials have said that as the war deteriorates in Afghanistan, any additional forces sent there would have to be from among troops withdrawn from Iraq.
Mr. Obama’s election also coincided with the American negotiators’ acceptance of many of the changes Iraqis demanded in the agreement, which created an overall picture that was easier both for the Iraqis and their neighbors — Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia — to accept.
The American negotiators sent a new version of the agreement to Iraqi leaders on Thursday that included many of the changes Iraqis had demanded. In public, Iraqis said merely that they were studying the document.
Over all, however, there was a new tone of optimism. “The atmosphere is positive with the American attempt to preserve the sovereignty of the Iraqi nation,” the government’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told the news channel Al Arabiya. He praised the inclusion of a new provision stating that Americans would not launch attacks on Iraq’s neighbors from Iraqi soil.
The Americans also added language to make explicit what kinds of troops would remain after the withdrawal in 2011, said a Bush administration official knowledgeable about the security pact. Those still in Iraq would be primarily trainers and air traffic controllers, the official said.
“There’s going to be a significant presence, but they are not going to be ‘combat’ forces,” said the administration official. The official said that the most recent talks with Iraqis had given American negotiators confidence that a final agreement was close.
Mr. Ameri, who is chairman of the security committee of Iraq’s Parliament, said that Iraqi politicians did appreciate the Bush administration’s commitment to Iraq. Signing the agreement while President Bush was still in office would be “a minimum sign of appreciation,” Mr. Ameri said.
The security pact, the largest policy issue here since last spring, has become the way Iraqis define themselves ideologically, a shorthand for what they think of the American presence.
Sunni parties are particularly nervous about the pact because in the past couple of years Americans have often been their protectors in sectarian fighting, and the withdrawal could leave Sunnis vulnerable to Shiite forces.
The Iraqi government, made up of exiles who were able to rise to power only as a result of the American invasion, has been looking for a way to support the pact without appearing to be kowtowing to Americans.
Mr. Obama’s election, which in many ways tips the balance toward withdrawal, allows the government to parry the calls by more anti-American parties to reject any pact. But many Iraqis are unnerved by the notion of a rapid withdrawal.
“Iraqis are very relieved that Obama won, but this happiness or relief is accompanied by worry,” said Ali Adeeb, a lawmaker and a senior member of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. “Because even if Obama calls for early withdrawal, there is still a need to rehabilitate the Iraqi security forces.”
Mr. Obama has said that a contingent of American troops would probably stay for a more extended period — to train Iraqi forces, to protect the American Embassy and to root out terrorists. That should help reassure some Iraqis, Mr. Habeeb, the lawmaker, said.
“Everyone believes that the Iraqi forces will be capable of handling things instead of American troops,” he said. “But we need some involvement of Americans to prevent neighboring countries from extending their influence in Iraq. I heard Obama say he would keep some troops, so even after 16 months we will have some, but it will be outside of towns. It will not be seen by Iraqis.”
Mr. Obama’s election could provide a chance for Iraq to start a new chapter, with greater ability to control its own destiny. But it also will leave Iraq more on its own between aggressive neighbors and unable to look to the Americans as mediators when political factions argue. So there is at once a sense of possibility and the potential for implosion.
“The other thing we witnessed through the Bush period was that when the Iraqi politicians couldn’t reach a compromise, Bush interfered,” Mr. Habeeb said.
“I don’t think Obama will do that; he will not try to set the Iraqi agenda,” he said. “I think the politicians will have to be mature enough to solve their own problems and dare to make compromises.”
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington.