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iraq and the US elections
who actually cares?

Mustafa Habib
Over the past two decades the outcome of the US presidential elections has been hotly debated by Iraqis. However this year, the approaching American cliff-hanger hardly seems to interest locals at all. NIQASH asked…
25.10.2012  |  Baghdad
The Iraqi PM and President Obama together in late 2011, for talks on the US troop withdrawal. Image: Getty
The Iraqi PM and President Obama together in late 2011, for talks on the US troop withdrawal. Image: Getty

In past years, as the US presidential election has approached, the subject has dominated conversations in the coffee shops, clubhouses, restaurants and streets of Iraq, as well the Iraqi media.

Two decades ago, the outcome of such an election meant a lot to the Iraqi people who watched the campaigns and nervously awaited the results. And they did so because they knew the outcome would have a major impact on US foreign policy toward Iraq.

Back in 2004 and 2008, Iraqis were discussing the candidates whenever they could, trying to analyze which candidate would be best for Iraq. Some locals even placed bets.

But this year, it seems, nobody cares as much. The US presidential elections, which take place every four years, are scheduled for Nov. 6 and, according to current opinion polls, support for the two candidates, current US President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the candidate for the opposition Republican party, is fairly even. It will be a tight race.

A recent BBC poll noted that while Americans may be uncertain, the rest of the world clearly favours Obama. Yet somehow not that many people in Iraq seem to care.

Retiree Mohammed Najeeb told NIQASH he’s more worried about politics and security in Iraq than he is about anything going on in the US. “Neither Obama nor Romney can do anything to help the Iraqis,” said the local who doesn’t like watching television. “We only want the US to leave us alone.”

Baghdad shopkeeper Ibrahim al-Khafaji told NIQASH that he had followed the US presidential elections with great interest ever since the 1990s. “We were always waiting for a new president to change the US policy towards Iraq,” he said, referring to sanctions that the US had placed on Iraq during that era. “But since the troop withdrawal at the end of 2011, the US’ role in Iraq is not as important anymore,” al-Khafaji said.

“In the old days we used to follow the presidential election race because we always hoped to see a new president who would change the country’s policies towards Iraq,” agreed Saied al-Alusi, a former Iraqi army officer. “After each election we were always so disappointed. But we always had a lot of hope.”

Civil servant, Naseer Mahmoud, told NIQASH that for the first time ever, he wasn’t too worried about the US presidential elections. “When I watch the TV news I prefer to see things about political and security developments in Iraq rather than the US presidential candidates,” he said.

And Mahmoud says he and others feel this way because of the US troop withdrawal at the end of 2011. “Unlike in the past, that makes me think that these elections cannot have too much impact on my own country,” he explains.

Also notable is the fact that Iraqi television and radio shows haven’t devoted much time at all to discussing the presidential race. In the past there had been special guests and televised debates on the subject.

Iraqis used to be so interested in the US elections because it was in the 1990s that the US first put more foreign policy focus on Iraq, explains Mohammed Yas, a professor of political science at Nahrain University in Baghdad. First there were sanctions after Iraq’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait and then in 2003, there was the US-led invasion of the country that toppled the regime of former leader Saddam Hussein and sent the country spinning toward civil war.

But now, Yas noted, “there’s a new relationship between the two countries. Things have normalized.”

Interestingly local politicians also seem to agree with the average Iraqi on the street. The various political parties have refrained from putting out press statements or commenting on the US elections.

“It is because of the change in the nature of the relationship between Iraq and the US,” noted Ihsan al-Awadi, an MP for the State of Law list, which is part of the ruling coalition headed by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “When there were more than 150,000 US soldiers in Iraq, the US used to dominate the country’s political decision making and its security. That’s why Iraqis were so desperate to know what was going on there. But now there’s a more balanced relationship and we have friendly ties with the US.”

“Iraq is no longer among the US’ priorities and the US is no longer among the Iraqi priorities,” Muayad al-Tayeb, the Baghdad-based spokesperson for the Kurdish voting bloc in Iraq\'s federal parliament, explains. Additionally al-Tayeb believed he had also detected a kind of apathy in ordinary Iraqis relationship towards the US. “That’s why they all think it’s unimportant,” he suggested.