Following criticism from Republican presidential candidate John McCain that his rival had not spent enough time in Iraq, Democratic candidate Barack Obama made his second trip to Iraq Monday, meeting with American military commanders and upper-level Iraqi officials.
Although Senator Obama has publicly stated he will withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office if he wins, he did not discuss this plan with Iraqi officials. During a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the senator emphasized that he would do his best to guarantee the security of Iraq without specifically commenting on plans to withdraw US forces, says Naseer al-Ani, a senior official in President Talabani's office who was present for the meeting.
Although Obama's and Senator McCain's proposals for Iraq appear quite different – McCain has commented that US troops could be in Iraq for the next hundred years, compared with Obama's 16-month plan – most Iraqi politicians say they are not taking sides in the election.
"The situation in Iraq is working in a good way, and this good situation is connected to the Iraqis more than the Americans. Any new American president will be looking to make the situation in Iraq better," says parliamentarian Sheikh Hameed Mullaa, a Shiite and member of the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council.
Obama's trip comes after a controversy stirred this weekend when a German magazine quoted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as saying that he agreed with Obama's 16-month timetable. Mr. Maliki's office said his words had not been translated correctly. The prime minister has called for a withdrawal of American troops, but given no dates.
A longtime critic of the Iraq war, Obama arrives in Iraq after a visit to Afghanistan, where he called for the US to invest more troops and more financial resources.
For Iraqi politicians who've seen violence fall to a four-year low, this shift makes sense. "The Americans have started to fight Al Qaeda and the insurgents, and have been successful, but in Afghanistan they have not," says Omar Abdul Sattar, a Sunni parliamentarian and a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "So the US foreign policy is to withdraw troops from Iraq and put more in Afghanistan."
The trip may also be significant for Obama in that it will help him overcome perceptions about being inexperienced in international relations.
"When we compare them both [McCain and Obama], they are equal, but not in international knowledge," says Sattar, who thought this was Obama's first trip to Iraq, and possibly his first time outside the US.
"We welcome his visit because we think that on-the-ground experience will help change views about Iraq in a positive way," says Sheikh Mullaa.
Whoever moves into the White House in January, Mullaa says their Iraq policy will be determined not by party principles, but by the facts on the ground. "If the situation is good, [American forces] will leave; if it's bad they will stay," he says.