Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

High hopes, few good choices for Iraq's new leader

Haider al-Abadi seeks Saudi and U.S. support to combat ISIL, while heeding the needs of his allies in Iran

Haider al-Abadi is not the first Iraqi prime minister on whom Washington has pinned its hopes for a new era of reconciliation among Sunnis and Shias to stem rising violence and turmoil. A similar wave of U.S. optimism followed the election of Nouri al-Maliki to the job in 2006, as Iraq careened towards all-out civil war. The outgoing prime minister at the time, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was accused of either aiding or failing to restrain Shia militia engaged in ethnic cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods after the bombing of a critical Shia religious shrine. Maliki was hailed as the no-nonsense pragmatist who would stop the carnage.

Eight years later, it is Maliki who is cast as the sectarian villain and Abadi the great hope leading a government so inclusive it will unite all Iraqis to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]. But Abadi hardly starts with a blank slate, it’s worth noting that Maliki is now a vice president, while Jaafari serves as foreign minister.

All three men came from the same Shia Islamist political party, Dawa, and all three counted Tehran as a major ally. Still, for President Obama’s strategy for fighting ISIL to work, Abadi must reach out to Sunnis _ their alienation from Baghdad has played a key role in enabling the extremist group’s advance. And the tone in Washington is upbeat.

“Iraq took a promising step forward,” President Obama told reporters after the news that Abadi was chosen as the new prime minister in August. 

Congratulating Abadi on his new Cabinet, Secretary of State John Kerry said recently the Iraqi parliament “approved a new and inclusive government, one that has the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities for a strong Iraq.”

President George W. Bush had said practically the same thing to Maliki eight years earlier: “You’ve assembled people from all parts of your country, representing different religions, different histories, and traditions, and yet the Cabinet here represents the entire Iraqi people.”

But while seeking a third term in office this year, Maliki had become so divisive and dysfunctional that even Iran was convinced to jettison him, after earlier backing his efforts to hold on to power following April’s election. The security situation in Iraq had rapidly and dramatically deteriorated during that time as the security forces Maliki (who was also acting Defense and Interior Minister) commanded fell away in the face of a determined onslaught by ISIL, allowing the extremists to take over the city of Mosul with barely a fight.

As the Iraqi government called for U.S. air support to halt and roll back the rebel advance, Washington made it clear that replacing Maliki was a precondition for sustained U.S. involvement in the fight.

While Abadi starts with a store of goodwill among Iraq’s neighbors and Western allies that Maliki had long since exhausted, he faces many of the same critical domestic challenges that plagued Maliki. Even his new Cabinet remains a focus of conflict, with parliament having rejected his nominations for Interior and Defense ministers. Until they are filled, Abadi will hold both as commander-in-chief – as Maliki had done.

Abadi, a technocrat who’d previously served as deputy parliamentary speaker, began his tenure by reducing the number of Cabinet positions and refusing to cave to demands to give the two vacant ministries to Shia politicians deemed to have sectarian agendas. But he lacked the backing to install his own choices. Iraqi lawmakers told the AP that the Shia Badr Brigade militia, which has ties to Iran, objected to the nominees, including a Sunni lawmaker and a Shia politician whose nomination was defeated by only one vote. Other reports say lawmakers felt they weren't sufficiently consulted.

He’s also called off Iraqi air force strikes on civilian areas in a bid to placate Sunni tribal leaders in those areas, and has rejected the presence of any foreign armies on Iraqi soil. Even as U.S. Congress debates sending U.S. troops to Iraq, such a  decision would ultimately rest with Baghdad, which refused to renew a status of forces agreement that would extend the U.S. military presence in the country, leading to their exit in 2011. The prospect of any return of large numbers of U.S. troops to Iraq has been rejected by Tehran and opposed in Baghdad. Abadi may face difficulty getting parliament’s approval to allow the U.S. to increase its presence in the country, although a loophole exists: the current U.S. military advisors on the ground there are counted as part of the force attached to the U.S. embassy to protect American interests in Iraq.

As he works to untangle a sectarian bureaucracy that was cultivated by Maliki over the past seven years, Abadi must also contend with Kurdish ambitions for secession, particularly after its forces captured the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the autonomous region has always eyed as the capital of any future independent state. He must also accept the support of Saudi Arabia, which has for years opposed Shia-majority rule in Baghdad, while at the same time maintaining its alliance with Riyadh’s main regional rival, Tehran.

Saudi Arabia has agreed with the U.S. to create a camp for Syrian rebels to be trained and equipped to take on ISIL and, ostensibly, unseat another Iraq ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iraq and Saudi Arabia have long been at odds; the kingdom simmered at the ouster of Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and quietly supported insurgent group attacks to destabilize the Shia-led government. It finally appointed an ambassador to Baghdad only two years ago, and said just this month that it planned to open an embassy there.

The tentative relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia came under the spotlight at the recent Paris talks on combating ISIL, from which Iran was excluded -- reportedly at Saudi Arabia’s behest. Abadi sharply criticized that decision in one of his first interviews since becoming prime minister.

“I actually find it puzzling that we hold a conference in Paris to help Iraq to fight terrorism … and the biggest neighbor of Iraq – Iran – is excluded. That puts me as prime minister in a very difficult position,” he said.

Iraq, Abadi said, was caught in the middle of “a disagreement between the international allies – this international coalition – and Iran. For me, that is catastrophic.”

“He has an uncomfortable position,” agrees Bessma Momani, a professor of Middle East politics and international relations at the University of Waterloo. “His benefactors aren’t [publicly] supporting him in terms of the strategy of fighting the Islamic State, if anything goes wrong, he’s the fall guy.”

Iranian and U.S. security forces are already on the ground in Iraq, confronting ISIL in different areas. That tactic may have to continue as each side refuses to publicly coordinate with the other.

“The U.S. and Iran are fairly good at staying out of each other’s way, they’ve got long experience of basically having to share the same lover,” says Michael Knights of the Washington Institute. “The U.S. at the moment is providing the air power and a significant amount of support north up on the Kurdish front line, the Iranians are providing the bulk of support of ground forces around Baghdad.”

While Abadi tries to balance competing interests from regional powers, he must also address his domestic crises. The Kurds, who are taking on much of the fight against ISIL in the north, have yet to receive the proceeds of national oil sales they’re owed, and are struggling financially to pay and equip their own soldiers. The Kurds are also pushing for independence, something neighboring Turkey and Iran – as well as the U.S. and Baghdad itself – have long opposed. A referendum on the status of Kirkuk was repeatedly postponed, and now that Kurdish forces hold the city, they’re unlikely to be easily persuaded to hand it back to central government control.

Abadi is also eager to quickly establish a new National Guard that is designed to include both Sunni and Shia members from their own towns, which observers hope will go some way to ease sectarian tensions regarding the security forces. Both the army and police forces are heavily Shia, many units comprised largely of Shia militia units. Relying instead on locally recruited National Guard forces as the frontline fighters against ISIL might prove more effective, and would also bind Sunni communities to the government.

A similar strategy was adopted during the U.S. troop surge that began in 2007, with local Sunni fighters recruited to the “Sons of Iraq” program, paid by the U.S. military to fight Al-Qaeda. But despite repeated pleas by the U.S. military for the Maliki administration to fold the program into the Iraqi security forces before U.S. troops left the country, Maliki never did, and instead worked to dismantle them. That fueled resentment among the Sunni population who were often harshly treated by Shia police. Maliki’s decision to abandon the Sunni gunmen after they had fought Al-Qaeda in Iraq left them little incentive to resist when the newer iteration of ISIL invaded.

The hope is the National Guard program, with pensions and full-time salaries, will end that.

Abadi’s work is still only beginning, but observers say he is already checking off all the right boxes. He’s renounced his British passport so -- unlike other Iraqi politicians -- he is no longer a dual citizen, and he welcomed human rights activists into the country to investigate and prevent abuses. But many of the challenges he faces are ingrained into the Iraqi political structure, and won’t be so easy to undo. Throughout the years Iraqi politicians have used the security crisis to put off addressing laws that have been used to alienate and punish political rivals. Under Maliki security forces often coerced confessions from people suspected to have carried out bombing attacks, leading to their execution.

Other challenges include combatting deep-rooted corruption in the judiciary system, instituting an amnesty program for Sunnis suspected of working for insurgent groups that might convince the disenfranchised community to be part of a new, more inclusive political order, and change or repeal the de-Baathification law, used in the past to target potential political rivals. Abadi must also pass a national budget.

Abadi’s greatest challenger remains Nouri al-Maliki, who now holds one of the vice presidency positions. Until Abadi can make some changes, Maliki’s appointees will still run the key security ministries.

“Maliki waiting in the wings? Oh, sure,” says Momani from the University of Waterloo. “That really brings us back to the question of how much of this change is real and how much of it is cosmetic.”

Given that Maliki has not left the picture entirely and all eyes are watching to see how he deals with these challenges, Abadi may not have everyone’s goodwill for very long. The optimism out of Washington that accompanied Abadi’s appointment will wane if he’s not seen to be so very different from his predecessor. When Maliki first came into the job he was relatively affable, approachable, and vowed to crack down on militia groups and fight corruption. Whether a Shia-dominated Iraq is truly able to allow greater political representation for Kurds and Sunnis in a region and at a time when Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting for dominance, remains to be seen. And the threat in the north will not wait.

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