Obama's Foreign Mission # 2

For Senator Barack Obama, the major difference between his first trip and the upcoming foreign mission number two is Barack Obama himself.

In January of 2006 when the I-Team accompanied Obama to Baghdad and Israel, he was a fresh member of the U.S. Senate from Illinois considering a run for the White House. This time, he travels as the Democrats' nominee-to-be.

When the I-Team arrived in Iraq in January of 2006, the drive from what used to be Saddam International Airport was still a harrowing ride down sniper's alley, requiring armed guards and passengers in body armour. The same route today is considered much safer.

When Illinois Senator Barack Obama arrived at allied military headquarters in the green zone, most American soldiers had to be told who he was. Only the tables of Chicagoans seemed to recognize him.

It was Obama's first, and so far, only trip to Iraq and came just after the first Iraqi elections. He met with American and Iraqi leaders here and saw conditions on the ground.

"I don't want to be under any illusion that we can militarily solve the problems here. That's not something that can happen," Obama said January 7, 2006.

For Obama, this trip was pre-presidential candidacy and pre-secret service with only the usual military protection afforded to congressional delegations that visit Iraq. Despite the photo ops with troops from home, it was there in Baghdad and later in Falujah that Obama cultivated a basic position he carried straight into the presidential campaign.

"We should move our troops out of the way as quickly as possible without causing civil war," Obama said then.

Two and a half years later, that message has been crafted into one of Obama's basic talking points.

"We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in," Obama said Tuesday.

"Right now, the Iraqi government wants a timetable for the U.S. to be out," said M. Cherif Bassiouni, DePaul law professor.

Author and United Nations war crimes expert Bassiouni says Obama's trip to Iraq next week will feed a growing appetite in that country for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. Obama now says he is committed to shifting at least two American combat brigades from Iraq to Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is a much harder not to crack. Afghanistan is a country that we thought had sort of gone quiet and it never has," Bassiouni said.

When Senator Obama's visits Afghanistan next week, it will be his first trip there.

"The most important thing is that the people on the Obama side, and the media do not see this exclusively as a public relations thing," said Bassiouni.

From Iraq, Obama will make his second visit to Israel. In '06, the I-Team traveled with the junior Illinois senator to the West Bank where he met with the new leader of the Palestinian organization Mahmoud Abbas and has a repeat meeting planned with Abbas.

And Obama mapped out a trip to northern Israel. The I-Team traveled by Israeli army helicopter to a Lebanese border village that had been shelled by Hezbollah terrorists, a part of the trip that Obama cites frequently in speeches.

"On this trip, one of the things I think will immediately be striking to him are that things are different," said Michael Kotzin, Jewish Federation Of Chicago.

Kotzin was with a delegation from the Jewish federation that hosted Obama's visit to Israel two years ago. Obama has since started a Web site written in Hebrew, a sign of the importance he places on Israel and Jewish Americans. Kotzin says this time Obama will see an altered situation on the ground.

"The geopolitical framework, the nature of the immediate threats from Hezbollah in the north, Hamas in the south, the growing strength and threat of Iran," said Kotzin.

"The Iranians feel they are a sovereign state and they're not going to be pushed around by the U.S.," said Bassiouni.

The uncertainty posed by a nuclear Iran and the threat of a wider Middle East war will undoubtedly shadow Obama even when he moves on to Europe. The balance of his foreign mission two will be in France, Germany and the U.K.

Obama is scheduled to return home from London a week from Saturday.

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