Obama’s Pledge to Withdraw from Iraq and the Iraqi Reality; 2 US Soldiers Wounded; 7 Dead, 22 Injured in Bombings

President Barack Obama will meet Wednesday, his first day on the job, with his secretary of defense, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high security officials to discuss the Iraq War and his plans for withdrawing US troops from that country.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Tuesday that Baghdad welcomes Obama’s commitment to withdraw responsibly from Iraq, but the al-Maliki government is hoping that major decisions will be made bilaterally, with Iraqi input all along the way. In his inaugural speech, Obama said, “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”

Underlining the continued security challenge that Obama has to deal with, bombings and shootings killed 7 and wounded 22 in Iraq on Tuesday. Two US soldiers were wounded.
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In Baghdad, “A car bomb targeting a US patrol in the afternoon killed three civilians and injured eight others in the central Baghdad district of Mansour. The US military said two of its soldiers were injured in the attack.” Mansur is a Sunni Arab area where support of the Gaza population is high, and this attack on US troops may be in part payback for the Israeli bombardment of the Palestinians. The USG Open Source Center translates a typical Iraqi Sunni fundamentalist tract put up at a bulletin board in late December that said, “”At 1415 on 29 December, as part of the ‘Iraqi Resistance Campaign for Supporting Gaza,’ a devout group of the Hunayn Brigade of the Salah-al-Din sector planted an explosive charge in the path of a convoy heading to the seized Al-Bakr base in Yathrib District. With the praise of God, a military Hummer was destroyed.” People who don’t think things like Israel’s Gaza campaign hurts US security in the Middle East don’t know what they are talking about.

Officials of the ministry of education moving through the once-tony Shiite Karrada district of the capital were targeted with a bomb, which killed two persons. Also, the Iraqi government accused a member of the Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cult of plotting a suicide bombing against Iraqi security personnel. The MEK is a leftist-Muslim terrorist group to whom Saddam Hussein gave a base, Camp Ashraf, in Diyala Province, because of their opposition to the Iranian government. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki wants to expel them from Iraq, but the US military apprears to be using them against Iran in the same way Saddam did, and keeps blocking steps toward expulsion.

US troops in Iraq broke into tears on seeing Obama sworn in, and many seem to agree with Staff Sergeant Douglas Avery, who said, “I hope that he can get our economy back on track and that he can get our relations better with other nations . . .”

The outcome of the provincial elections slated for Jan. 31 could affect how successfull Obama’s withdrawal plans will be. The Sunni Arabs will participate in large numbers for the first time at this level, since they boycotted the provincial elections in January, 2005. If Sunni politicians with grass roots and popularity can come to power as provincial leaders, they may be in a position to make some grand compromises with the Shiite al-Maliki government. Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that most parties in the major Sunni province of al-Anbar are running as tribal parties. Some of the secular-minded Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq, originally founded by the US military, are running as tribal parties in their own right. Even the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), the Iraq Muslim Brotherhood, led by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, is running in al-Anbar as part of a coalition with tribal groups. The IIP won the 2005 election, though only 2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, so it has the most to lose in access to provincial patronage and the levers of power. The Awakening Councils have so far lacked any weighty political vehicle, and this election could help legitimize them if they do well.

Likewise, the strength of that government may depend in part on how various Shiite parties perform in the southern, Shiite-majority provinces, as Anthony Shadid argues. Al-Maliki is promoting his once secretive, cell-based al-Da’wa (Islamic Mission Party) as a mass party in this election. If it does poorly, he could be weakened. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has declared neutrality in this vote, since the grand Shiite coalition he backed in 2005 has fallen apart and there is no longer a danger of the Baath Party taking back over. Sistani has not been happy with the performance of the Iraqi government in delivering security and services, but said it was nevertheless important for the citizenry to vote.

Likewise, the fate of the Sadr Movement depends in some part whether its independents do well in the provincial elections. It is not running as a party. The Sadrists control Maysan Province, but don’t know if they can keep it. Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that the Sadrists met with al-Maliki Tuesday to complain about what they call a concerted campaign aimed at arresting their leaders and hurting their electoral chances. If the Sadrists running as independents do well, it will put pressure on Washington and Baghdad to accelerate the US troop withdrawal, since that movement is vehement about foreign troops being out of Iraq on a short timetable.

While many Iraqis are glad to see Bush go, Iraqis of African heritage in Basra province are particularly joyous at Obama’s election. Basra was a major port in the early modern period and brought in slave labor from Africa. The Ottoman empire, which ruled Iraq, abolished slavery in the late 19th century. While it is true that there was a major slave revolt in south Iraq in the medieval period, it is not clear that those slaves were black Africans. Recent scholarship suggests they may have been Berbers from what isnow Morocco. The networks for trading slaves from East Africa were a later development. (In most of the Muslim world, having African slaves did not produce race as it did in the US. In Islamic law the children of a slave girl are free Muslims with inheritance rights, so they tended just to intermarry and over time to disappear into the general population. Endogamy, or refusal to marry out, is what creates race, and the children of slaves in Muslim societies were not endogamous. South Iraq is one of the few places where there is a recognizable African-Arab population in the Arab world outside Sudan).