What Obama Means for Iraq

Iraqi journalist who covered conflict says his countrymen are looking to the new US president as someone who can lead them out of a dark tunnel.

What Obama Means for Iraq

Iraqi journalist who covered conflict says his countrymen are looking to the new US president as someone who can lead them out of a dark tunnel.

Monday, 15 February, 2010
On this inauguration day, I rejoice with millions of people across the globe as Barack Obama is sworn in as president of the United States.

When Obama was elected, I felt joy, happiness and above all hope. Yes, “hope” was Obama’s slogan, but this word meant a lot to me as an Iraqi and as a US resident.

In Iraq, I was like millions of my fellow citizens. I suffered immensely because of the poorly planned war the Bush administration had waged to oust Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime.

In 2003, I felt relieved that Saddam was gone and hoped that we would finally be able to live normally. I had dreams but I had my doubts as well. I realised that even as my country was freed, it was occupied by foreign forces.

My dreams faded as the security situation deteriorated and as I watched the Bush administration’s poor response. The absence of a proper post-war plan caused my country to collapse into a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died.

When Bush was re-elected, I was disappointed that the Americans had chosen someone who had basically lied to them and had taken them to war on a false pretext.

The bloodshed in Iraq grew worse and the horror intensified, affecting every aspect of daily life. Bush had no idea what to do but kept offering promises that could not be fulfilled.

I was covering the war and its carnage for the Washington Post at that time and felt I had witnessed more pain and sorrow than any human could endure. In 2006, after being awarded a scholarship to Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, I decided to leave.

In the US, I found myself disappointed to learn how little the Americans knew about the war in Iraq.

The television coverage was terrible, and Americans did not seem to care much about the war until it affected their own families. All the years I had spent covering the war for them, and the danger I had faced, seemed to mean nothing. Above all, it hurt me to see that they did not understand how we Iraqis were suffering.

But gradually Americans became more aware of how the conflict was handled. As their disappointment over Iraq grew and the US economy declined, Americans sought change. I supported them, even though I did not have the right to vote.

I backed Obama when he announced his candidacy in January 2007, primarily because he recognised what the Bush administration had done to Iraq and to America’s reputation around the world.

His advocacy for a quick and complete withdrawal of US troops worried me a bit in the beginning. If that were to happen, the Iraqi factions, who were basically glued together by the Americans now, would create another war in order to control the country and its resources.

However, I gained an enormous amount of respect for Obama later in his campaign, when he pledged to end the war responsibly.

I read his memoir, Dreams from my Father, and was inspired by its tone and determination. His background as a community organiser gave me confidence that he could help America, Iraq and the entire world. It is a huge responsibility and the road for him will never be easy. But his message of “hope” will always be there.

I followed almost all of Obama’s speeches and read his op-eds about Iraq. His belief that Iraqi leaders should be pressed to reconcile and rebuild their country opens the door for both countries to reach an end to this war.

Indeed, as an Iraqi, I think Iraqi politicians – who unfortunately have let down the people who voted for them – need to be aware that the tap of US support will not be running for the rest of their lives.

They need to put aside their differences and build inclusive institutions that can heal the wounds of civil war. It is also the Iraqis’ responsibility to build their country.

On his website, Obama states that his administration will “engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society — in and out of government — to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces”.

I am relieved that Obama does not believe ending the war in Iraq means ending help for my country. Today, Iraqis are looking to Obama as someone who can lead them out of a dark tunnel.

I hope he will act on his words. I hope his leadership will teach Iraqi politicians to allow the Iraqi people to live in peace. If they cannot do this, I hope Iraqis will reject them – not in a bloody coup, but by voting for a change as Americans have done.

Disagreeing with what the Bush administration has done does not make me dislike this great country. Obama’s inauguration will be a great day, and his election is a reminder that I am experiencing part of the freedom that is not available back home.

Obama reminds me that there is “hope” and that someday I can return to my beloved country without living in fear of extremists.

One day, I hope Iraq will get back to its feet, and on that day, we can thank both Obama and the Iraqis.

Bassam Sebti was a Washington Post special correspondent in Iraq from 2003-2006. He is now the Arabic Editor of IJNet, the website for the Washington-based International Center for Journalists. He can be reached at bsebti@icfj.org.
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