Iraq rules out 'quick' US disengagement
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President-elect Barack Obama will face big decisions on the war in Iraq as the United States undergoes its first wartime change of administration since the Vietnam era. Baghdad, however, doesn't expect changes "overnight."
Iraq on Wednesday ruled out a "quick disengagement" policy by Washington in the country following Barack Obama's victory, dispelling hopes of many Iraqis of a rapid withdrawal of US troops.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari welcomed the election of Democrat Obama and said he did not expect an "overnight" change in US policy in war-torn Iraq.
"There won't be quick disengagement here. A great deal is at stake," Zebari told AFP. "We don't think there will be change in policy overnight."
He said Baghdad would respect the will of the American voters and that it was looking for a "successful partnership" with Obama.
"But there are many upcoming challenges," Zebari cautioned.
Obama promised during his campaigning to withdraw US forces from Iraq over a period of 16 months from when he takes over the White House in January 2009.
In a separate statement, the Iraqi government said it would cooperate "sincerely" with Obama to achieve the joint interests of the two countries.
The government has "sincere" desire to cooperate with the elected president "in order to achieve the joint interest of the two sides, preserve the security and stability of Iraq, maintain full sovereignty of Iraq and protect the interests of its people", spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.
Many Iraqis called on the president-elect to make good his promise and ensure the rapid withdrawal of the 145,000-strong American force from the violence-wracked country.
"The most important thing for Iraq is the withdrawal of American forces and Obama has called for this," said Mohammed Abdel, a taxi driver from Baghdad's central Karrada district.
"It is because of them that we are stuck in traffic jams and arrive at work late. If they get out, things will be normal here," he said as a passing US military patrol halted traffic at a key intersection in Karrada.
The movement of Iraq's anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr welcomed Obama's victory.
"We consider his victory as a wish of the American public to withdraw forces from Iraq. This is what we are looking for," said sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, Sadr's spokesman in the holy city of Najaf.
Sadr has been the strongest opponent of American forces in Iraq and launched two rebellions in 2004 against them in Najaf.
Lawmaker Jalaluddin Saghir from the powerful Shiite Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council said Obama would be under less pressure from the US Congress but his "approach towards Iraq would be less enthusiastic than (George W.) Bush."
"However he does represent some good things like plans to hold dialogue with neighbouring countries such as Iran and Syria. This will lead to positive steps that will serve Iraq's interests."
Baghdad small-time trader Musa Mohammed was more pragmatic. "Obama or McCain, how does it matter? All I want is a good road to my house," he said.
Zebari and US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said the election of Obama would not affect the proposed security deal between Washington and Baghdad.
"We want to finish this agreement with this current administration," Zebari told reporters later Wednesday at a gathering to celebrate the end of the US presidential election.
"The president-elect and his team are fully aware of the status of our talks and discussions. And they understand the rationale of concluding the agreement," Zebari said.
Washington and Baghdad are racing to clinch the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) deal which would determine the future of US forces in Iraq beyond 2008 when the present UN mandate expires.
The latest draft stipulates that American forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and complete a pullout from the country by 2011.
But the signing of the pact has been delayed and a failure to agree on the current draft would raise a new set of thorny problems for both Washington and Baghdad.
Crocker stressed that Obama's administration in-waiting would not interfere with President George W. Bush's goal of clinching the military arrangement before he steps down January 20.
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