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Why Iraq Hates Biden

The Arab world still distrusts Joe Biden over his proposal to partition Iraq.

10.16.08 6:38 PM ET

By mentioning the "cockamamie scheme" to partition Iraq in the last presidential debate, John McCain resurrected an issue that the Obama campaign would rather forget—the one that made running mate Joe Biden a hated man in the Middle East.

In September 2007, Senator Biden introduced a bill calling for the breakup of Iraq into separate Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish entities. The aim was to prevent what Biden feared, at the time, was an inevitable civil war, and the US Senate approved the nonbinding measure 75 to 23. (Both Barack Obama and John McCain arranged to be absent for the vote.)

The Bush administration categorically rejected the plan. Still, the Arab media screamed conspiracy. According to Arab commentators, Saddam Hussein's terrorist links and weapons of mass destruction were a mere excuse for the 2003 US invasion.

Obama advisers have assured the Iraqis that the Biden proposal is no longer relevant, but McCain mentioned it anyway.

The real goal was now revealed to be "dividing Iraq into three parts, basically wiping the country off the map, to serve American geo-strategic ambitions," wrote the Free Iraqis blog, which is run by a Christian Iraqi who is opposed to the government in Baghdad.

The site, a leading Iraqi political blog that is independent of the major sectarian groups, called Biden's proposal "criminal" and asked, "what makes the US Senate think that they can tell Iraqis what they should do with their own country?"

Turkey, a US ally, joined two countries hostile to the US, Iran and Syria, in attacking the plan, worried that establishing a separate Kurdish state would embolden the Kurdish minorities within their own borders.

Did Obama weigh this hostility when he chose Biden? Judging by the actions of Dennis Ross, a former Clinton Middle East envoy who now advises Obama, the campaign considers it old news. Ross has sought to assure Iraqis that, with the gradually improving security situation in their country, the Biden proposal is no longer relevant.

He told the London-based Arab international daily Al Hayat that Obama was committed to Iraq's unity and territorial integrity, and that it will be Obama, not Biden, who will be calling the shots on Iraq.

Biden also wrote an Op-Ed article in The Washington Post on October 3, 2007, that significantly altered his position, calling for a "federation," not complete partition.

Biden accused the Republicans and the media of distorting his views.

The federal model, which is acceptable to most Iraqis, was first adopted in 1992 by the Iraqi opposition to Saddam at a conference in Salaheddin, Iraq, and later codified into the Iraqi constitution following a plebiscite in 2005. But Biden has now chosen to avoid the issue altogether, deleting the "plan for Iraq" from his website, joebiden.com.

Still, it is hard to convince Iraqis that the partition idea is dead. Ali Al-Hamdani, a Shiite Iraqi blogger, wrote earlier this year that Biden's idea and the ensuing Senate vote were an expression of a war weary US political establishment that is prepared to do anything to disentangle itself from Iraq, even at the cost of destroying the country.

Although many Arabs would welcome an Obama victory, they worry that he is an unknown quantity with an experimental approach to the region's problems. For all the bull-in-a-china-shop blunders of the Bush administration, the Republican's policy in the Middle East is more predictable.

Sarah Palin, Biden's vice presidential rival, has never been to Iraq or stated a separate position about it, so she is simply assumed to share her party's stay-the-course determination. The Arab world has had no particular reaction to McCain's choice of Palin, while the riskiness of a Democratic administration is underscored, fairly or not, by the presence of Biden on the ticket.