Among black Iraqis, Obama inspires hope against racism

Abdul Hussein Abdul Razzaq laughs wearily when asked if racism is a problem in his homeland. As a black Iraqi, Razzaq says, he faces job and social discrimination and has little chance of getting a political appointment or being elected to public office.

That's why Razzaq, a longtime journalist from the southern Iraq city of Basra, is hoping that Barack Obama becomes the next president of the United States. Not only will it be better for Americans, he says, it will help black people the world over.

“It will prove that Americans are recognizing that black people are just as capable as white people,” he said. “It will be a historic accomplishment for black people all over the world if Barack Obama wins.”

Racism isn't new in Iraq. Black slaves were brought from Africa more than 1,000 years ago to work for landowners in Basra, where much of Iraq's black population still lives. Today, Razzaq says, an insult sometimes hurled at black people is “abd,” which means servant or slave in Arabic.

Razzaq has founded a political organization, the Free Iraqis Movement, to press for equal rights. Its goal includes amending the Iraqi Constitution to ban discrimination against blacks, who Razzaq says number about 2 million, and getting blacks elected to parliament.

He admits that the effort has led to frustration. The movement is too broke to have a Web site, and it is having trouble generating support from Iraqis who fear rocking the boat.

A recent visit to Baghdad to lobby leaders to support his cause was futile, with people advising Razzaq that his movement could be seen as sowing divisiveness. Another problem, according to Razzaq, is that Iraq's powerful people still think of blacks as servants. Some tribal sheiks still keep blacks as slaves, he says.