Nizar Latif, Foreign Correspondent
Barack Obama and David Petraeus, the top US military commander in Iraq, ride in a helicopter in Baghdad yesterday. AP
BAGHDAD // Barak Obama, the Democratsâ€™ presumptive contender for the White House and a long-time opponent of the war in Iraq, was in Baghdad yesterday for meetings with US military commanders and senior Iraqi politicians.
It was the senatorâ€™s second visit to the country and comes at a time when his troop withdrawal plans coincide with similar designs among mainstream Iraqi political groups, including the government of Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister.
Mr Obama has proposed pulling out American soldiers at the rate of one or two brigades per month, with a view to ending ordinary combat operations by US forces within 16 months of his taking the presidency.
Details of his plan remain vague but include a residual American force that would stay in Iraq to aid with security and prevent any resurgence by al Qaâ€™eda-style militants. The United States would also continue to train Iraqi military units, most of which are still substandard and heavily reliant on US air support.
Demands that a timetable be set for a US withdrawal have gained ground among politicians in Iraq, who are slowly catching on to growing fear among the public that the American occupation will be permanent.
Matters came to a head during recent negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA); the Iraqi government insisting any deal include a timetable for a US pullout, something Washington has repeatedly refused. The Bush administration had been pushing for the SoFA to be signed before the end of the month, but talks stalled, and Washington has apparently conceded the best it will get is a yearlong agreement, giving their military presence in Iraq legal sanction.
Longer-term arrangements will now be determined by the next US president, either John McCain, the Republican hopeful, or Mr Obama.
Mr McCain has heavily criticised the calls for a scheduled troop cut back, putting him at odds with the prevailing political climate in Iraq. He has said increased US troop numbers during the â€œsurgeâ€ were the cause for declining levels of violence, and claims a timetabled withdrawal would cost the Americans a victory that he insists is close at hand.
Violence, however, remains high.
In June, approximately 448 civilians died in Iraq, compared to 3,000 a month at the height of a sectarian civil war in early 2007. Almost a fifth of Iraqis still live as refugees, both inside and outside the country, with millions enduring difficult conditions in neighbouring states. Despite differences of opinion, a majority of Iraqis still want a clear commitment to a prompt â€“ if not necessarily immediate or total â€“ withdrawal.
â€œI donâ€™t think Mr Obama would simply pull all of their troops out and abandon us in a situation where security deteriorates again,â€ said Ali Hussain, a member of the Iraqi Council of Representatives from Kut, a Shiite city 170km south of Baghdad. â€œIâ€™m sure they will be sensible and react to the situation here, and I think even when they have largely withdrawn they will remain involved.â€
Mr Hussain said he anticipated Mr Obama would have a better understanding of Iraq than the current US commander-in-chief, George W Bush.
â€œWe have heard about his Islamic and African family roots, and about his good Christian upbringing,â€ said Mr Hussain of Mr Obama. â€œIâ€™d expect him to be fair and honest in his dealings with Iraq.
â€œHe seems to have a real faith in lasting peace, rather than war, and he also seems to have a political flexibility and intelligence, a belief in diplomacy, that is closer to that of Bill Clinton [the former US president].â€
There is plenty of cynicism among Iraqis about Mr Obamaâ€™s visit, which is widely viewed as part of the US political circus, designed for a domestic audience and almost divorced from Iraq itself.
Ali Mohammed al Juburi, a professor in politics at Baghdadâ€™s Mustansariya University, said despite widespread suspicion of US motives in the Middle East â€“ regardless of who holds office â€“ Mr Obamaâ€™s trip was to be welcomed.
â€œIâ€™m glad he visited Iraq because itâ€™s important he sees as much as possible with his own eyes what things are like here,â€ he said. â€œBoth for the sake of Iraqis and American troops.
â€œIraq is obviously a huge concern to the Americans, and it has become the crowning failure of US foreign policy. Thatâ€™s something that Obama cannot ignore, so itâ€™s good he has come here to engage with that fact.â€
Mr Obama has said the United States should focus its efforts, and more of its overstretched military, in Afghanistan. While there have been improvements in Iraq and a strengthening of the state, the situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating in the face of a growing insurgency.
Regardless of whether Mr Obama or Mr McCain is elected as US president in November, the winner will face the same problems and contradictions.
Kamil Yousif, a 45-year-old Christian from Baghdad, said he believed it would take the US military â€œat least 10 more yearsâ€ to solve the problems in Iraq.
â€œI would like to thank president Bush for freeing us from Saddam Hussein,â€ he said. â€œBut there have been mistakes since that means al Qaâ€™eda is a big threat and that Iran has basically taken over our country.
â€œIt will take at least a decade to deal with those problems. It is in American and Iraqi interests for the majority of US troops to stay here.â€
But Sheikh Hussain al Yasari, leader of the Shiite Mahdi Army in al Majar, near the city of Amarah, said only an immediate American withdrawal would suffice. â€œI would ask Mr Obama that he and his troops leave our country and that they leave it for Iraqis to understand and settle our own internal problems,â€ he said.
The Mahdi Army is the militia wing of the Sadr movement, a Shiite nationalist group that commands a huge following across southern Iraq. It has consistently called for an end to the US presence in Iraq and has grown from humble roots into one of the most significant political forces.
Sheikh al Yasari said he expected a new US president would lead to no fundamental changes in policies.
â€œAmerican presidents come and go, but nothing much changes,â€ he said. â€œObama is another weak American leader who will do exactly as the Israelis tell him to in order to defend Zionism. I donâ€™t think there is any difference in that regard between one US president and the next; they are all the same and so it will be with a president Obama.â€