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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once an obscure parliamentarian who had been exiled to the United Kingdom under former President Saddam Hussein, recently emerged from the shadows of the Dawa party to lead his country out of the most threatening security and political crisis it has seen since 2003. He was formally appointed to office on September 8, inheriting a country that was essentially in ruins. A third of Iraq had fallen to the Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city; the Kurds had moved to take oil-rich Kirkuk and threatened to secede; and the Shia were bracing for further ISIS advances.
Although Abadi was an untested leader, his initial appointment solicited broad domestic and international approval because of his promise, as a Shia, to balance the conflicting interests of Iraq’s ethno-sectarian groups: Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. Abadi also had a reputation in the parliament as a conciliatory and solution-oriented leader. To be fair, some of the premature fanfare around Abadi might have actually stemmed from the collective relief that his divisive predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, was finally departing. In his first two terms, Maliki had alienated the Sunnis and Kurds, as well as the Gulf states and Turkey, with his tunnel-vision plan to consolidate power for his Shia faction.
But Abadi has not disappointed in his first hundred days in office, even if he will be severely tested by the onerous challenges that lie ahead.
A BALANCING ACT
A defining moment of Abadi’s first few months as prime minister was easing the long standoff between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan over oil wealth sharing and finally offering support to the Kurdish military forces, known as the peshmerga, which had been sorely neglected under Maliki. Under a new agreement forged in mid-December, Baghdad will pay the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) half of all revenue generated from Kurdish-controlled oil fields. It will also fund the peshmerga and allow the United States to arm them. While this is a significant concession to make so early on in his term, the deal allows Abadi to placate Kurdish calls for independence and also to signify his willingness to cooperate with the United States, which mediated the negotiations. Further, the timing of the deal frees up Abadi’s government to focus on reconciling with the Sunnis, some of whom have turned to fight alongside ISIS after years of exclusion under Maliki.
Although the Sunnis are pleased to see Maliki go, they do not yet fully trust Abadi. Only a handful of Sunni tribes in Anbar province, the majority of which is occupied by ISIS, have joined government forces to defeat the insurgents. But the Sunnis’ reluctance may soften over time if Abadi continues to remain sensitive to their demands, such as ending discriminatory policies that target Sunni members, freeing Sunni prisoners, and granting more powers to Sunni provincial governments, among others. His new government has allocated more ministerial posts to Sunni leaders—seven in total—and, for the first time since 2010, parliament approved the interior and defense minister appointments, after two months of fierce debate. The latter position was filled by Khaled al-Obeidi, a prominent Sunni politician from Mosul. In November, when a Maliki-appointed judge issued a death sentence against Ahmed al-Alwani, a Sunni political leader whose tribe is helping Baghdad fight ISIS, Abadi reached out to the Alwani tribal chiefs and suspended the sentence. (Alwani had been accused of murdering two soldiers during a security raid of his compound in December 2013. He denies the charges.) Even at the risk of losing support from within his own coalition and Shia constituency, Abadi has started a campaign to remove corrupt Maliki-appointed officials and military commanders, some of whom receive salaries for overseeing “ghost soldiers,” or troops that receive pay for no work and cost the government millions of dollars. Abadi has identified at least 50,000 such soldiers.
Abadi’s motivation to reform the military goes beyond just balancing sectarian tensions. The U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS has worked to contain the militants’ advance, but defeating ISIS requires rehabilitating Iraqi ground forces that scattered in the face of ISIS’ advance on Mosul in June 2014. To jumpstart this process, Abadi replaced 36 corrupt, mostly Shia officers with others from a balance of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and has been working with U.S. advisers and other foreign powers in retraining, arming, and equipping vetted units of the Iraqi army. In fact, signaling a new level of trust in the Iraqi government, the United States has pledged $1.5 billion to train and arm these units and has resumed the sale of F-16 fighter jets, which had been suspended after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Together with Shia militia groups that rallied to fight ISIS—after the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued an edict in June, when ISIS captured Mosul and executed hundreds of civilians—these combined forces have been able to reclaim a few villages and towns from ISIS in recent weeks. Abadi has also been consulting and coordinating with Washington the replacement of Shia-dominated security forces with locally recruited Sunni National Guard units that will defend cities hostile to a Shia military presence. His approach to security will be further tested by how he handles the Iran-backed Shia militias once ISIS has been defeated; although they were crucial in preventing ISIS from reaching Baghdad, their place within Iraq’s security apparatus is perceived as a threat by the Sunnis.
Alleviating Kurdish and Sunni grievances is not cost-free. Abadi could lose some support from within the State of Law, a Shia political bloc that includes the Dawa party once controlled by Maliki, and from the wider Iraqi Shia community. Angered by the deal with the Kurds, people in the oil-rich city of Basra—part of the southern Shia region that produces 90 percent of Iraq’s oil—are waging a public campaign for self-governance. In order to appease both Shia and Sunnis, Abadi has had to make public stands in support of the Shia while privately placating the Sunnis. When he announced that he would not interfere with the death sentence against Sunni leader Alwani, Abadi quietly assured tribal leaders that there would be no execution. He also paid a quiet visit to Basra recently, offering to delegate more power to the province as a way to soften its demand for self-rule.
REMOVING THE FENCE
When it comes to foreign policy, Abadi’s most significant effort has been soothing long-standing animosity between Iraq and the Sunni Arab states. Over the past three months, Iraq has sent high-level officials to Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in attempts to ease tensions, build trust, and garner support in the struggle against ISIS. These diplomatic overtures underscore key changes in Iraq’s foreign policy and illustrate an understanding that any chance for success in defeating ISIS and reconciling with Sunnis at home requires the support of Sunni Arabs across the region.
In turn, leaders throughout the region have responded warmly to Baghdad’s efforts. Saudi Arabia welcomed Abadi’s appointment—which had Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish approval—and indicated an immediate willingness to cooperate with his government. After Iraqi President Fuad Masum’s goodwill visit to the kingdom in November, Saudi Arabia prepared to reopen its embassy in Baghdad, which it had closed in 1990 at the start of the Gulf War. The Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, also expressed his wish to visit Iraq if conditions would allow. Additionally, Abadi has visited Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey to discuss regional strategies to combat Islamist militants. But before they fully normalize relations, the Gulf states would want to see greater efforts in Baghdad to satisfy the demands of Iraqi Sunnis and to downplay its relations with Iran. There, Abadi is still constrained by his formal loyalties. His first official diplomatic visit was to Iran, which signifies the strength of that country’s political influence.
Within only three months, Abadi has decorated his short résumé with a number of impressive political feats: successfully appeasing the disenchanted Kurds, rebuilding a corrupt military, opening dialogues with estranged Arab neighbors, and renewing ties with the United States. These measures are only the tip of the iceberg; he needs to sustain his achievements to truly succeed. Still, Abadi’s commitment to resolving Iraq’s sectarian strife—“even if I get assassinated by it,” he had boldly stated—is a welcome change from the schismatic style of his predecessor.