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From afar, Iraqis ponder US elections: 'No more Bushes, please'

By Loveday Morris | The Washington Post | Published: February 14, 2016

BAGHDAD — A constant flow of sweet tea and tobacco fuels the clusters of patrons inside the Iraqi capital's historic Shahbandar cafe. They jostle for space like the faded pictures of old Baghdad that clutter the walls.

But customers don't come here for the refreshments. They come for the conversation.

It has been a gathering place for Baghdad's intelligentsia for almost a century. Writers, poets, lawyers and doctors pack the wooden pews every Friday. Debate encompasses poetry and art, but politics is also standard fare, and not only Iraq's own.

As the U.S. nomination races heat up, candidates have sparred over their past positions on intervention in Iraq and their plans to tackle the Islamic State. If the American air campaign continues, the next person to sit in the White House will become the fifth consecutive U.S. president to bomb Iraq.

Here, among the bubbling water pipes at Shahbandar, there is an acute awareness that the new president will also play a role in shaping their lives - from 6,000 miles away.

Hashim al-Bayati, a 62-year-old civil engineer who frequents the cafe most weeks, is relieved it looks unlikely to be another Bush, with Jeb Bush finishing fourth in New Hampshire.

"We are fed up with the Bush family, come on. No more Bushes, please," he said. He recalled George H.W. Bush's "betrayal" when he urged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War in 1991 but then did not support them. The death toll reached the tens of thousands.

"Unfortunately they cheated us," Bayati said, adding George W. Bush was even more damaging in his handling of the fallout from the 2003 invasion. He says he has little faith that any president will improve things for Iraq.

"They have the problem as Iraq, the same faces coming again and again, the same families, Bushes and Clintons," he said. "They exported a copy of this system to us."

As with other customers here, mention of Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich or others candidates draws a blank stare.

And what of Trump? "He's a funny character, I don't know how the American people can accept this kind of person. It's unfortunate."

Shahbandar sits on Baghdad's famed bookselling street, Mutanabbi. There's an old Arab saying: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads, and nowhere in the Iraqi capital is testament to that more than Mutanabbi, named after a 10th century poet.

On Fridays, stalls cram the streets, while some traders lay out their wares on the sidewalks. Copies of Hillary Clinton's "Hard Choices" mingle with anthologies of Khalil Gibran poetry, encyclopedias and Arabic translations of Dan Brown novels.

Aziz Hasson, 70, sitting near the doorway to Shahbandar, likes to pen his own poetry. His last effort was titled "America." Its opening line is "Why, my love?" He leans forward on his cane to explain the thrust. "We gave them all of our dreams: the Arabian Nights, the magic carpet," he said. "But they used them for Disney films, and they brought us their Humvees, their tanks and their snipers."

Every street corner in Baghdad has its own tale of violence. And Shahbandar's is no different. On a wall near entrance five portraits hang. They show the four sons and a grandson of the owner, all killed in 2007 when a car bomb brought death right to the doorstep here, killing 68 people.

When it reopened the following year, it adjusted its name. Shahbandar Martyrs' Cafe, the sign outside now reads.

Mohammed Khish Ali, the owner, squarely blames the Americans, and George W. Bush. He said whoever is elected, unless they can improve security, he'd like them to leave Iraq "to its people."

"I hope that Bush will remember before he dies that he killed my five sons," he said. "One day he will stand before God, and I will have God on my side."

Perhaps surprisingly considering his family's legacy, Jeb Bush does have some supporters here. One is Mohammed Radha Ashir, a 72-year-old retired physician, who comes here every week to meet friends and family.

"If you start a mission you should finish it," he said, sitting next to an antique wooden-cased radio. "Bush started all this, maybe another member of his family will be able to finish the policy of his brother."

Ashir feels the biggest mistake of U.S. policy was not the 2003 invasion, but what came after, including the 2011 withdrawal of troops.

"Obama left Iraq to destruction under the pretext that he doesn't want to be involved in wars, but it's a mission that should be finished," he said. "The Democratic Party didn't do anything for Iraq, at least the Republicans have an obvious policy."

Hillary Clinton, given her tenure as secretary of state, would be "disastrous" for Iraq, Ashir said. But Saad Mohammed Ikabi, 43, sitting a few feet away, disagrees. "She has the experience, she was a minister," he said. "We need someone with experience, and she also has a husband who is an expert."

In a corner near the windows Mohamed Jobouri Mahdi, with cropped gray hair, wearing a faded brown leather jacket, described her as a "classy lady."

"But most Iraqis prefer the Republicans rather than the Democrats," said the 51-year-old policeman. "We like the powerful, not the smooth."

If he could vote, he says he'd be torn between Bush and Trump. "We'd like another Bush, we know that one and one would be two, without diplomacy, without discussion," he said. "Not like Obama."

But in the end he would most likely settle for Trump, because he thinks he'd bring back boots on the ground and help restore security.

Trump "has vision," he said. But he doesn't appear to have a full grasp of the Republican frontrunner's policies.

"It's true he said, 'Ban Muslims,' but he didn't mean all the Muslims, just the ones involved in terrorism," he postulated. "Of course if he banned all the Muslims that would be bad. But that's impossible, inhumane. It would be against American principles."

An eclectic offering at Baghdad's Mutanabbi Street with Arabic translations of Hitler's Mein Kampf, Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.
Loveday Morris/Washington Post photo

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