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Baghdad familys woes far from Obama spotlight
Iraq Far from Obama 5196342
Abdul-Karim Sami sits at his home as a poster of Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, hangs on the wall in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, July 18, 2008. This is a part of Baghdad that Sen. Barack Obama likely won't see. - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — There is a Baghdad that Sen. Barack Obama probably won’t see.
    It’s places like the dirt strip that crosses under a highway and leads to a small home — and a couple and their six grown children seeking to move forward in a city where violence has eased but life for many remains mired in economic miseries and few opportunities.
    ‘‘I want to believe that the future for Baghdad is now better, that we’ve turned a corner,’’ said Abdul-Karim Sami, a reed-thin 60-year-old who once hobnobbed with Baghdad’s elite as a tennis coach. ‘‘I truly want to believe that.’’
    Then he ticks off the family’s list of woes: food costs so high they have cut back on all but essentials; jobs so scarce his oldest son peddles trinkets on the street despite a university degree in economics; not enough money left over for a doctor visit or any emergency.
    ‘‘I pray every day that nobody gets sick,’’ Sami said.
    Obama’s visit to Iraq — the timing is being kept secret for security reasons — is expected to be brief and dominated by meetings with Iraqi officials and U.S. military commanders in the heavily guarded Green Zone.
    Discussions about future U.S. troop withdrawals and the transition to Iraqi security control should be high on the agenda.
    There likely will be less attention to other long-term challenges facing whoever next occupies the White House: how to help rebuild Iraq and lift an economy flattened by sanctions and war, but holding oil riches and potential paydirt for investors willing to gamble that security gains will stick.
    Both Washington and Iraqi officials have shifted more resources toward reconstruction and development projects of all kinds. The U.S. military announced Friday the completion of a water pumping station south of Baghdad and an elementary school in eastern Baghdad. On Saturday, a groundbreaking ceremony was planned for a new hotel in the Green Zone.
    Like many Iraqis, Sami and his family are impatient for some direct benefits to come their way.
    Sami’s family, too, represents the questions many Iraqis have about Obama’s views.
    The family strongly backed last year’s U.S. troop ‘‘surge’’ that is now credited with halting much of the insurgency attacks and sectarian killings in and around the capital.
    Obama, who criticized the reinforcements at the time, has lauded the military successes, but argues that sending 30,000 additional soldiers to Iraq pulled away focus from the widening battles against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and border regions of Pakistan.
    Sami also supports the idea of a slow pullback by U.S. forces — not the rapid withdrawal that Obama has suggested.
    Some past visits by American politicians, including Obama’s main presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, have included tours of public markets or other sites in Baghdad. Obama’s specific plans once in Iraq have not been made public.
    It’s unlikely, though, that he will have time to fully inspect areas like Sami’s Wahda district in eastern Baghdad. The mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood is dotted with police checkpoints, barriers of concrete and razor wire, and rows of government posters denouncing insurgents and armed factions.
    Sami’s home gets about four hours of electricity a day. Even that little bit of juice is better than last summer, when the family could go for days at a time without power.
    Sami’s wife, Mediha, sweeps the previous night’s collection of wind-blown dust into their garden: a tiny patch of grass, a few sunflowers and a single date palm. ‘‘Will Obama see firsthand how real Baghdad families struggle?’’ she asks.
    Her husband says he doesn’t think so. But he hopes Obama will come away with an understanding that military gains and reconstruction progress are twin blows to insurgents and other armed groups.
    ‘‘Yes, maybe the big war is finally over. Yes, maybe the violence and killings in Baghdad are mostly something of the past,’’ said Sami, who is now retired and gets by with a pension and part-time tennis classes that bring in about $800 a month. ‘‘But now comes another fight, I think. It’s about how to rebuild the country and our lives.’’
    This point is not missed by Iraq’s leadership and U.S. strategists.
    The Iraqi government is using the downturn in violence to court foreign investors, especially from the wealthy Persian Gulf states that have begun pouring money into neighboring Jordan.
    U.S. diplomats also are pressing hard for Iraqi leaders to clear the way for provincial elections this fall. The voting would shift more powers to regions and — more important — give a greater political stake to Sunnis, whose support is considered key in stamping out al-Qaida in Iraq and remaining insurgent cells.
    Inside Sami’s parlor, decorated with a few tennis medals and trophies, he and his wife discussed the future of the family. They both strongly urge their six children, ranging in age from 17 to 35, not to follow their friends who went to Jordan or Syria for jobs and an escape from Baghdad’s grinding stress.
    They realize, however, the pull may be too strong. Their youngest son is studying hotel management and tourism. Their next youngest is interesting in becoming a professional tennis instructor. At the moment, both career paths seem to lead out of Iraq.
    ‘‘This would be a tragedy if young people cannot stay in Iraq,’’ Sami said. ‘‘We need some kind of future. We need jobs and a good economy along with the security.’’
    A few blocks from Sami’s home, Iraqi soldiers man a checkpoint. Last year, it was in American hands. The change reflects a wider — and fast-moving — trend in which Iraqi security forces are increasingly taking the lead as U.S. troops move into support roles.
    But few Iraqis appear to support a full-scale American withdrawal under current conditions. Many fear that could undercut recent security gains and open the door to greater influence by Iran with Shiite militias — a charge that Tehran denies.
    ‘‘A pullout would create a vacuum that could be used by many sides,’’ said Salah al-Rubaie, a Shiite vegetable vendor in Kut, about 90 miles southeast of Baghdad. ‘‘Sectarian and militia killings would return as well as looting and robbing. Public life could come to a halt again. That would be a catastrophe.’’
    Hamid Alwan Jassim finds ample evidence against a U.S. withdraw in his home city of Baqouba, the hub of Diyala province where Sunni insurgents are trying to regroup. On Tuesday, double suicide bombings killed at least 28 army recruits.
    ‘‘Iraq should be stable first, because any early pullout would allow extremists to emerge again and more fiercely,’’ he said.

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