ANALYSIS-Iraqi leaders welcome Obama but assert themselves

BAGHDAD, Nov 9 (Reuters) - The election of a U.S. president who wants to withdraw American troops from Iraq as soon as possible should surely make it harder for militants to whip up fury against the "occupiers".

For that reason at least, Barack Obama's poll victory could bring a honeymoon of sorts in Iraq.

The incoming U.S. president's plans for withdrawal from Iraq have already cheered up Washington's friends and confounded some of its foes.

The prospect of a new U.S. relationship with the wider Middle East, especially Iran, could also smooth out the remaining months of a six-year-old military campaign launched by the government of President George W. Bush.

But as Obama takes the helm in what both sides hope will be the final phase of the war, he will find a stronger, more assertive Iraqi government that is not always going to accept U.S. policies, even from a president they like.

So far, Iraqi politicians have welcomed Obama's victory and made clear that they back his plans for withdrawal.

"Obama's presence at the head of the U.S. administration will give new blood, new thoughts, new plans," Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said last week. "We want to be in a fundamental alliance with the United States."

Because of the sharp reduction in violence in Iraq over the last year, Iraqi leaders now see the war as being in its final chapter. The death toll in Iraq fell last month to its lowest level since the U.S. invasion nearly six years ago.

Obama's plan calls for the 14 remaining U.S. combat brigades to leave Iraq at a rate of one or two brigades a month from the day he takes office, with the last out in 16 months, leaving a residual anti-terrorism force that he has not precisely defined.

A year ago that fast withdrawal schedule was viewed by many in both Baghdad and Washington as a risky campaign pledge. But now Iraqi leaders say it is achievable.

"We think 16 months is good," Rubaie said.

The prospect of Obama improving relations with Iran could also help Washington win and keep friends in Iraq.

Iraq's government is led by Shi'ite political parties with deep ties to Iran, often pulled in opposite directions by their new allies in Washington and their old allies in Tehran.

Iran will have its own presidential vote next year, and while the likelihood of a thaw with Washington is difficult to gauge, many of Maliki's supporters clearly hope one is coming.

"We have no choice but to follow cooperative and positive policies with all neighbouring countries of Iraq. We will encourage any positive gesture to deal with neighbouring countries," said Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, the head of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ruling Shi'ite alliance.


Still, not every policy Washington proposes is going to go down well in Baghdad. As its troops go home, the United States is inevitably going to lose influence.

Washington wants Maliki's Shi'ite parties to reach agreement with Kurds in the north over disputed territories, and to agree a formula with them to share oil wealth. It wants Shi'ites and Kurds to look after Sunni Arabs who turned against al Qaeda.

"With the election of Obama, the expectation of a withdrawal in Iraq grows stronger, and therefore means that some of the anti-occupation propaganda may abate," said Norwegian historian Reidar Visser, an expert on Iraqi politics.

But he added: "Obama seems to think that he can put pressure on Maliki to make him move towards national reconciliation, but that position means ignoring the strengthening of Maliki's self-confidence."

After years of being criticised as weak, Maliki's government has become bolder both at home and in dealings with Washington.

Its coffers are full of oil wealth from recent high prices. Earlier this year its security forces, with only limited U.S. support, achieved victories over Shi'ite militia, events veiwed in Iraq as demonstrating that they had reached a turning point.

Maliki has already driven a hard bargain with the outgoing Bush administration in negotiations over the future U.S. presence, effectively forcing the Bush administration to accept a three-year timetable to withdraw.


Among many politicians in Iraq, skepticism is still the order of the day. Many assume Obama's election promises of a new Iraq policy are only that.

"Slogans in an election campaign are only slogans," said Luwaa Sumaisem, senior adviser to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has built a powerful political movement and formidable militia in part by stoking anti-Americanism.

"We believe president Obama will differ from candidate Obama. Policy inside America is made by institutions, not by one man, even if he is president," he said.

A day after the U.S. election, a Shi'ite newspaper in Baghdad showed pictures of Bush, McCain and Obama with the caption: "three sides of the same coin".

But other foes say they are willing to give Obama a chance.

Harith al-Dhari, exiled head of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association, accused by the Iraqi government of fomenting violence, told Al-Jazeera television the group would work with the new U.S. administration "if it understands our demands".

"First of theses demands is to leave Iraq," he said. "Obama shares this view with us."

Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Angus MacSwan