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Saturday, November 1, 2008

US election: If Iraqis could vote it would be for McCain

For five years Ali and Mohammed have lived alongside US soldiers in their Baghdad neighbourhood near Rasheed Street, a prominent commercial artery running through the heart of the Iraqi capital.

During that time American culture and politics have become familiar to them, and they say that if they could, they would vote for Republican candidate John McCain in next week's US presidential election.

"McCain would be best for Iraq because he would ensure stability," said Ali, 66, an expert on the Sumerian era.

The personal qualities and political platforms of McCain and his Democrat rival Barack Obama are of little import to Ali, however. His focus is on Iraq and its neighbours such as Iran.

"The Iranians believe that if Obama is elected he will not take action against them despite their nuclear ambitions. That worries me," said Ali, sitting on an old bench in Al-Zahawi coffee shop.

"If the Iranians get the bomb they will become the Tarzan of the region," said the former teacher and lecturer at the University of Baghdad, referring to the vine-swinging strongman of the jungle in old Hollywood movies.

Mohammed, also a professor at the university, said he too preferred McCain "because Obama supports a rapid withdrawal of US troops."

"Our army is still too weak and Turkey and Iran are threats. Iran's President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad has warned Iran would fill the void left when US troops depart," he said.

Rasheed Street with its 1920s-style buildings is still closed to vehicles, and groups of anti-Al-Qaeda fighters guard the stretch that runs north to south.

The street was the scene of major attacks by insurgents after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 to US-led invading forces. But even before that many business establishments had begun to move away from the thoroughfare.

Today, a few hundred metres (yards) from Al-Zahawi coffee shop, is the famous Al-Mutnabi books market, the only place where Baghdadis can find English books and magazines.

Booksellers display a range of computer publications, periodicals, works of fiction and school textbooks on wooden shelves.

Barack Obama's image peers out between two editions of "Vanity Fair" magazine kept next to the memoirs of former US president Bill Clinton.

But "The Audacity of Hope," one of Obama's books, has yet to find a buyer.

"I have no customer for this book. Iraqis are interested in the campaign, but they prefer to read texts translated into Arabic," said bookseller Shallan Zaidan.

Such Arabic versions, translated and published by Lebanese companies, include "My Year in Iraq" by Paul Bremer, the former US administrator of Iraq, and "Bush at War" by renowned investigative journalist Bob Woodward.

But there are no translations of books on the two candidates bidding to enter the White House.

Iraqis prefer instead to rely on the latest issues of weekly news publications such as Time and Newsweek, said government official Whamith Shadhan, who was browsing through second-hand books and magazines.

"I trust the Republicans more. They're more capable of establishing democracy in the world, especially in Arab countries," said the 33-year-old. "Obama is far too left."

Since the invasion more than five years ago, the Mutanabi market has been twice hit by bombs. The area is predominantly Sunni, and judging by some graffiti on the walls Al-Qaeda is never far away.

"The insurgents aren't bothered by political books sold on the street. They focus on religious ones," said Yasser Ali, an Obama supporter and seller of books for 22 years.

Obama "interrupted his campaign to visit his sick grandmother. That speaks volumes about the man," he said.

Back on Rasheed Street itself, Abu Ahmed waited at a men's hairdresser as his friend got a shave.

"We accept black people more readily in the Middle East. We feel closer to them. We have common sufferings," said the long-time sports coach.

"It would be nice if the Americans elected a black person. And Obama seems less inclined to engage in another war."


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