Haider al-Abadi: Is it mission impossible for Iraq’s new

Haider al-Abadi: Is it mission impossible for Iraq’s new

abadiWhen Haider al-Abadi was nominated Iraq’s next prime minister, a politician whispered, “May God help you”. With a raging jihadist insurgency and a country split along sectarian lines, Abadi needs all the help he can get.

Back in February 2010, when Iraq was preparing to go to the polls in a critical general election, the US embassy in Baghdad was keenly aware of the “grumbling” in political circles about Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s “closed leadership style” and was observing other possible PM candidates within his bloc.

“Haider al-Abadi,” a leaked US cable noted, was “one of the few trained economists in the COR [Council of Representatives – or parliament]…He strongly supports economic reform and anti-corruption efforts.”

In the end of course, Maliki secured a second four-year term in office – a move that is likely to go down as yet another disastrous chapter in Iraqi history.

Meanwhile Abadi was re-elected to parliament in the March 7, 2010 poll. He has since chaired several parliamentary committees and served as deputy speaker.

As is evident from US embassy cables, Abadi, a Baghdad-born, electrical engineer-turned-politician was well-known (and well-liked) by US officials in Iraq ever since his 2003 return from exile in Britain.

That assessment would prove useful in the days leading up to his recent nomination as Maliki’s replacement, with US officials scrambling “to ensure that Mr. Maliki’s rivals would decide on an alternative candidate,” according to a report in the New York Times.

A frantic 48-hour period of phone calls from Washington and Tehran to Iraqi politicians finally ended on August 11 when Iraqi President Fouad Masoum formally nominated Abadi. “The country is in your hands,” said Masoum, a Kurd, to the 62-year-old Shiite politician.

As the future prime minister shook hands with a gathering of senior Iraqi officials, a Shiite lawmaker spoke for millions of Iraqis when he whispered to Abadi, “May God help you.”

Abadi is going to need all the help he can get.

Politics the Iraqi way

For starters, the man tapped to be Iraq’s next prime minister has until mid-September to form a government – and get it approved by parliament – before he is officially confirmed as the country’s top leader.

That’s easier said than done in a country that has run on patronage politics where factions, sectarian groups and community elders must be appeased with appointments, ministries and a range of payoffs.

While patronage politics is not unique to Iraq, the country confronts a singular set of challenges with swathes of territory under ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria) control and the nation effectively split along sectarian lines.

To a large extent, the roots of Iraq’s current problems lie in a Sunni sense of marginalisation for which Maliki’s divisive politics bears considerable – but not sole – responsibility.

Lessons from Tal Afar

One of Abadi’s biggest challenges is to reach out to Iraq’s Sunnis by building a consensus with community elites and addressing their legitimate grievances.

The seasoned politician has some experience in reconciliation. In 2005, Abadi was tasked with liaising with Sunni tribes to drive al Qaeda from the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar.

A leaked US diplomatic cable describes a September 2005 meeting between Sunni and Shiite sheikhs, which was attended by Abadi. “The two groups,” the cable noted, “had not been willing to meet each other earlier.”

But when they finally did, at a meeting aimed at local reconstruction and reconciliation efforts, the cable recorded that “the common theme echoed by several participants was that despite urgent need there must be reconciliation before reconstruction”.

Almost a decade later, that imperative is still in play and the lessons Abadi learned in Tal Afar would be useful today.

Situated west of Mosul, Tal Afar is currently under ISIS (also known as the Islamic State) control amid reports over the weekend that several women and children from the minority Yazidi community were abducted and taken to the city from the village of Kocho.

Maliki and Abadi: Cut from the same cloth

The question though is whether Abadi is able to break with his party’s style of playing the political game.

Born into a respected Baghdad family in 1952, Abadi is believed to have joined the Islamic Dawa party as a teenager at a time when Saddam Hussein was cracking down on the banned Shiite party.

Like his fellow Dawa party member Maliki, Abadi also fled Saddam’s Iraq, moving to Britain in 1980. He lived in the UK for the next 23 years, earning a PhD in engineering at the University of Manchester. Abadi then worked as an industry adviser and consultant in the UK – including several years as head of a company servicing the elevators at the BBC World Service’s London headquarters, where he was known by several journalists.

His journalistic contacts and English fluency proved useful after 2003 when – like Maliki and several Shiite politicians – Abadi returned to Iraq following the US invasion.

As the spokesman for the Dawa party, Abadi frequently came into contact with western journalists and diplomats.

In an interview with the BBC, former British diplomat Gerard Russell hinted that Abadi is cut from the same political cloth as Maliki. “He comes from a very similar background,” said Russell.

But the two Dawa party members, Russell noted, had different political styles: “Al-Abadi is a very clever man and is a politician by background. Maliki had something more of an underground background.”

Monitor the bodyguards

While Abadi has a reputation as a moderate within the ruling Dawa party, he remains a product of a post-Saddam, Shiite-dominated political system that has viewed Sunnis with deep distrust.

A recurring theme in leaked US embassy cables from Baghdad reveal a Shiite political spectrum “consumed with countering what they interpret as a resurgent Ba’athist ideology in Iraq”.

Whether Abadi is able to reach out to the Sunnis would also depend on whether Iran – and Tehran’s Iraqi Shiite proxies – are willing to allow Sunnis at the political table.

“To Shiites, it is akin to bringing Hutu génocidaires into the Rwandan cabinet or appointing apartheid apologists as ministers in the South African government,” noted Ali Khedery, a former special assistant to five US ambassadors in Iraq, in a column in the New York Times.

Drawing from his experience of traveling with “all of Iraq’s presidents and prime ministers since 2003,” Khedery revealed that an important window into the minds of Iraqi leaders is the security detail and bodyguards that surround them.

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“Mr. Abadi’s choices about who to entrust with his physical safety will also be critical. His security detail will almost certainly be led by tribe members and blood relatives, a universal practice in Iraq. How they behave in the coming months and years will tell us a lot about the prime minister’s mind-set, values, leadership and tolerance for corruption,” said Khedery.

Regardless of the makeup of his security detail and how they behave, Abadi will still have to lead a country torn by one of the harshest Islamist insurgencies in modern times, aided by security forces more sectarian than competent.

He will still have to convince a Kurdish population that sees no benefits to sticking with a crumbling national project to make concessions in the national interest.

Finally, he will have to erase the wounds and memories of an unforgiving past among the Sunnis as well as his Shiite brethren.

With challenges just like that, God had better be on Abadi’s side or Iraq’s very future is doomed.