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Iraqi Reaction To Obama's Cairo Speech

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in Cairo yesterday, President Obama stressed how the war in Iraq had provoked strong feelings throughout the world.

President BARACK OBAMA: I also believe that the events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.

MONTAGNE: In Iraq, people were listening. NPR's J.J. Sutherland watched the speech with an Iraqi family, and he has the story from Baghdad.

J.J. SUTHERLAND: The men of the Mahdi(ph) family gathered together to watch the speech.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SUTHERLAND: They live in Mashtal, a lower-middle-class Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. Not too long ago, it was under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. There is still the occasional mortar or rocket, but on the whole, it's peaceful. The men await Mr. Obama's speech with some anticipation. And as it begins, they're quite pleased.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

SUTHERLAND: President Obama's speech is simultaneously translated into Arabic. Here, he's saying that no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, but that he is convinced we must be open to each other.

Hussein Mahdi is unemployed.

Mr. HUSSEIN MAHDI: (Through translator) A new start. If only he could follow through on his words, things will be fine. But he can't.

SUTHERLAND: Hussein's father is Afam Mahdi(ph). He's dressed in traditional Iraqi garb. He and others in the room are skeptical of the U.S. After six years of war, it's understandable. And then they're moved when Mr. Obama begins to quote the Koran.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

SUTHERLAND: Whoever kills the innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind, says Mr. Obama. And whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.

Mr. AFAM MAHDI: (Through translator) Allah, this is very nice. This word makes our hearts open.

SUTHERLAND: But their ingrained distrust soon surfaces.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

SUTHERLAND: Here, the president repeats his commitment to withdraw all U.S. forces by 2012. A cousin, Hitba Mahdi(ph), can't quite believe it.

Mr. HITBA MAHDI: (Through translator) We wish it to be real. We wish what he's saying to be real.

SUTHERLAND: There is such a deep distrust of Americans and American policy, these men don't really believe that American troops will actually withdraw. And in the middle of the speech, part of the reason for that distrust is demonstrated.

The power goes out. People here are desperate for basic services - power, water, sewage treatment and security, all still lacking, despite the massive American presence for six years.

(Soundbite of applause)

SUTHERLAND: They quickly turn on a generator. After the speech is over, the men debate it. At one level, it obviously reached them. Again, Hussein Mahdi.

Mr. H. MAHDI: (Through translator) As we said, the speech in the beginning was attractive. We liked it because he spoke in verses from the Koran. For us as Muslims and Arabs, it was nice because he is the first American president to speak in this way.

SUTHERLAND: Iraq's political leaders took it the same way - in public, at least. They were perhaps a bit less skeptical. From every side of the political spectrum here in Iraq, they all praised the president for reiterating his vow to withdraw troops by 2012, and they welcomed his outreach to all Islamic peoples.

But for the Mahdi family and other ordinary Iraqis, while they appreciate the effort, the wounds are too deep and too old for even a president whose middle name is Hussein to make them believe the speech was much more than pretty words. Here's Muhdah Mahdi(ph), another cousin.

Mr. MUHDAH MAHDI: (Through translator) No American president, even if he holds the Koran or even if he prays, can reach out to Muslim people at all - never. Because all the Islamic people do not accept what America has done, what Israel has done to the Palestinian people and what America has done in Arab lands.

SUTHERLAND: And while President Obama began his speech saying he knew no one speech would be enough, Iraqis for one are still waiting for concrete policy changes, not words.

J.J. Sutherland, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

JJ Sutherland
JJ Sutherland covers the Pentagon for NPR. Since 2004 he has regularly spent time in Iraq as part of NPR's award-winning team of reporters and producers who have dedicated themselves to covering the conflict.