BAGHDAD Iraqis are avidly watching the 2008 U.S. election race, searching for signs of policy change under a new president and prospects for U.S. troop withdrawals from their country.
"I do not care if the president is a man or a woman, what really matters is the change of American policy towards Iraq," said Muhenad Sahib, a university professor from the southern oil hub of Basra, Iraq's second largest city.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, rivals for the Democratic nomination, have squared off over Iraq. Clinton voted to authorize the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein but has since urged Congress to revoke approval. Obama opposed the war from the outset.
Both have vowed to start bringing troops home in 2009 if elected, while Republican candidate John McCain has supported President George W. Bush's 30,000-strong troop build-up which has been partially credited for sharply falling levels of violence across Iraq.
Athil al-Nujaifi, a member of a secular, multi-ethnic political bloc in the volatile northern city of Mosul, said a Democrat victory would offer the United States "a new future".
"The current situation in Iraq is tied to President Bush and his inability to admit his mistake in occupying Iraq and his inability to avoid the mistakes the neo-conservatives committed," Nujaifi said.
Mohammed Shaker, a member of Iraq's biggest Sunni Arab party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, in Mosul, thought the Democrats would win but disagreed with Nujaifi, saying he did not expect U.S. policy to change regardless of the outcome of the election.
But he hoped U.S. troops might withdraw anyway because of improving security.
SOME SEE NO IMPACT
Some Iraqis felt their lives would be little changed whoever wins the November election.
"I follow the news but I don't care who will win because they are two faces of one coin," said Ali Naji, a 27-year-old shop owner in Iraq's southern holy Shi'ite city of Najaf.
Qassim Ahmed, a photography shop owner in Mosul and father of seven sons, agreed.
"We are in a race to make a living for our children. These things will not be any use to us," Ahmed told Reuters.
Many of those across Iraq interviewed by Reuters over the past week felt U.S. voters could do worse than elect Clinton as the first female president of the United States.
"It would be fantastic because a woman has more sense ... she cares more about her life, her family and her people," said Qassim Tuaima, the owner of a Baghdad curtain shop.
Abdul-Latif al-Dulaimi, a 38-year-old architect, agreed, describing Bush as "hasty and stubborn".
"Bush led his country to be hated and created violence in many parts of the world," said Dulaimi, who is from the former insurgent stronghold of Falluja just west of Baghdad.
But not all Iraqis are glued to the U.S. election.
"I don't watch it because I do not have a TV set," said Abu Ali, a 50-year-old vegetable shop owner from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
"I would love any person who gave me money to buy a TV set."
(Additional reporting by Sabah al-Bazi in Tikrit, Aref Mohammed in Basra, Khaled Farhan in Najaf and Aws Qusay in Baghdad, writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Dominic Evans)