After Maliki, Abadi Is Iraq's Next Great Hope
The U.S. has a poor record on Iraq, but it's optimistic that cooperation with the country's new prime minister can help him win the war against terrorists and restore regional stability.
ERBIL —For accurate prognoses about developments in Iraq, don't ask anybody in Washington. The series of momentous misjudgments out of the mouths of important U.S. politicians first began with George W. Bush's assertion that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. And who can forget that, after the capture of Baghdad in May 2003, Bush gave a speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln under a large banner that read "Mission accomplished."
But the mission was by no means accomplished. His successor, President Barack Obama, carried on with these directionless assessments when he said, upon the 2011 withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Iraq, that the Americans were leaving behind a "sovereign, stable and independent Iraq."
Then in January of this year, when militias of radical ISIS Islamists started flooding back into Iraq from Syria, the president quibbled about comparing them to al-Qaeda. "If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant," he told The New Yorker magazine, referring to the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star.
In June, Secretary of State John Kerry developed some recommendations for dealing with ISIS troops, but they showed little awareness of reality. Kerry said that in Erbil — the contested seat of Iraq's autonomous Kurd regional government — U.S. airstrikes against the radical Islamists would be "a complete and total act of irresponsibility," as long as there was no government in Baghdad that could reconcile the dominant Shias with the Sunnis who dominated in Saddam’s day, and the Kurds. Yet American airstrikes began on Friday.
Perhaps Iraq will lead
That said, Haider al-Abadi, the new prime minister nominated by Iraqi President Fuad Masum to replace Nouri al-Maliki, appears to have better judgment. Born in 1952 during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, Abadi challenged Hussein's Baath Party and fought the regime from exile in Manchester and London. Two of his brothers were executed for opposing Hussein's regime, and a third spent 10 years in prison.
After Saddam Hussein's fall, Abadi, who is a qualified engineer, returned to Iraq. In 2003, he became communications minister in the transitional government and an advisor to Maliki, who had been elected prime minister. Both men belong to the Dawa Party, which Abadi joined when he was just 15 years old. He was elected to parliament in 2006.
"We are waiting for American support," Abadi, then still just a parliament member, told the Huffington Post in June. Reacting to Kerry's warning that support would be "irresponsible," the Iraqi offered an alternative scenario: "If there are American airstrikes, then we don't need any Iranian ones. If there are no American airstrikes, then we may need Iranian support."
When Abadi accepted the enormous responsibility of taking on the post of prime minister, President Masum told him, "The nation lies in your hands."
Forming a government over the next 30 days will probably turn out to be the least of his problems, because after two terms in office, Maliki has left the country in pieces. Maliki was a Shia as far as both politics and society were concerned. His affiliation was the root cause of Sunni tribe rebellion, which in turn facilitated the invasion of ISIS militias and the intensified push for Kurdish independence. Abadi is now a bearer of hope — for reconciling the different factions, winning the war against the Islamists, and restoring stability to the whole region.
"The new prime minister is an insignificant political figure, just as Maliki once was," cautions Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a political analyst at the American Jamestown Foundation think tank. "He has to form a national unity government that is accepted by both Sunnis and Shias." That will be no easy task, as the Iraqi government is currently dominated by Shias.
A man with strong backing
Maliki has refused to accept the nomination of his party friend, and announced in an impassioned public speech that he would resist it. At the beginning of the week, after Maliki had elite units — under his orders as prime minister — set up road blocks and checkpoints, many inhabitants of the capital city feared an armed revolt by the outgoing prime minister.
But van Wilgenburg isn't counting on that. "Abadi is being supported by both the United States and Iran. I don't believe that Maliki and his militias will resist that."
Things are getting a little lonely for the obstinate Maliki. The Badr organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has already announced that it will support Abadi, not Maliki. And from Tehran, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran demonstratively congratulated Abadi.
So the decisive question is whether the designated new prime minister stands for a new political course. "As a member of the Dawa Party, Abadi will continue to insist on leading roles for Shias in the political arena," says Daniel Gerlach, an Iraq expert and editor-in-chief of the German zenith Magazine that focuses on the Arab and Islamic world.
Gerlach is skeptical and sees primarily pragmatic reasons for the change in prime minister. "They exchange faces to give people on the outside the impression of change," he says. But realistically, he says, the slate of the power apparatus Maliki built up over the past eight years can't be wiped completely clean. After all, Abadi's nomination is meant to integrate, not turn everything on its head, while certain changes are overseen.
"One mustn’t forget," Gerlach says, "that Maliki is now literally fighting for survival." After the prime minister's departure, corruption charges could be brought against him at any time, and there might even be an attempt on his life. His regime, propped up by numerous uncontrolled private militias, is known for murders and extortion — crimes mainly aimed at the Sunni population. Maliki's demonstration of power in Baghdad could therefore also have served the purpose of getting certain guarantees for his safety from his designated successor.
The first reaction of both Kurdish and Shia opposition politicians to the news of Abadi's designation was satisfaction. Those who have supported Maliki up to now apparently can also live with Abadi. The future prime minister does, after all, come from their ranks. Abadi is a compromise who can use the polarization to lead. "We must be careful not to end up in a war of religion," he warned in June. And even if it may seem a little like wishful thinking, there is hope that his statement, "Shias are not against Sunnis, and Sunnis are not against Shias" underlies his political agenda.
President Barack Obama called Abadi on Monday from Martha's Vineyard, where he is vacationing. The White House summary says that the president told Abadi the United States was prepared to widen cooperation with Iraq in both the political and security areas if Baghdad pushes reforms through.
Let’s hope that this time Washington hits the mark.