A Sheik's Take on the Obama Inauguration

Last summer when Barack Obama made his only visit to Iraq, he met one of Iraq's most influential and colorful sheiks. Sheik Ali Hatim watched the inauguration last night and remembered telling Obama that his schedule for pulling troops from Iraq was too fast and could leave the country again in chaos. "I don't want you to stay forever but fix what you messed up," he says he told the then presumptive Democratic nominee. "We will not abandon you," he remembers Obama telling him. The sheik's answer: "We will see."

The sheik was among the Sunni tribal leaders who turned against Al Qaida, one of the pivotal points of the war. He and many of his peers in the now calm Anbar province see the American forces as protection against what they consider an Iranian-backed Shiite government and Islamist Sunnis. Speaking in his marbled, terracotta-tiled office in Baghdad, he gestured to a photo of himself shaking Obama's hand displayed next to an ornamental U.S. Marine sword. No fan of former President George W. Bush, who he believes paved the way for an Islamist resurgence in Iraq, he's withholding a conclusion on Obama. "Politicians are driven by remote control," he says, apparently referring to U.S. policies and institutions. "But as a person he is good."

Sheik Ali, 38, charismatic in his red and white checked headscarf, surrounded by statuettes and photos of notable desert forefathers and usually smoking through a filter, is always a good interview and had other wry observations on Tuesday's big event: "You implement your democracy but we don't have it here," he said. He rightly noted that Obama's address, which he saw on Arabic channels with translation, was aimed at an American audience more worried about the economy than Iraq. He didn't find the opulence of the event inappropriate. "If Bush was my president and was leaving office, I would have a big party, too." And he noticed the hobbled Vice President, saying, "When Dick Cheney was leading his big companies he was running on two legs, now he leaves in a wheelchair."

But the Sheik, who owns an extensive library of Hollywood movies on DVD and managed to work a Will Smith character into an analysis of the upcoming Iraqi elections, took a distanced view of the American transfer of power. "American politics are just like a movie. Each character plays a role. The hero. The villain. Bush has played the villain well. . . [but] there will not be a big change."

After the inauguration, the Sheik viewed "Saw V." He recommends it.