15 Aug 2014

Who is Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi?

Journalists are scrambling around to find out as much as possible about Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. He studied electrical engineering at Manchester University. He once had a company that repaired the lifts at Broadcasting House.


More relevantly, he, like the man he ousted, Nouri al-Maliki, is from Iraq’s Shia Dawa party, which was illegal in the time of Saddam Hussein.

Two of his brothers are said to have been executed, and his father forced into exile. After Saddam was overthrown by the 2003 US invasion Mr Abadi returned to Iraq where he held several government positions, including at one point liaising with Sunni tribes to drive Al-Qaeda from the town of Tal Afar on the Syrian border.

All very interesting, but how much freedom of action does he have? Mr Maliki, for all that he centralised power, was not a dictator. He built up a system of Shia power, backed by Iran, which largely excluded Sunnis. That system remains in place, and will not wither away because there’s a new prime minister.

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If Prime Minister Abadi wants to bring Iraq’s Sunnis back into the government fold, it will take a lot of time, money and persuasion. Mr Maliki imprisoned and exiled senior Sunni politicians, and they are unlikely to trust a new prime minister from the same political party, at least not at first. The army, led by Mr Maliki placemen with little military acumen, collapsed in the face of the Is threat. It will not be rebuilt overnight.

US President Barack Obama says the solution in Iraq is political not military – Prime Minister Mr Abadi needs to reach out to Sunnis, and now Kurds, alienated by Mr Maliki’s Shia chauvinist policies. But any Iraqi leader also has to take into account Iranian interests. Mr Maliki may have stepped down but he can still pull strings, and that may limit the new administration’s room for manoeuvre.

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The barbarians are not just at the gate, but inside the property. Jihadi Is fighters, beheading its enemies and enslaving women, are expanding their area of operation within Iraq, pushed back by US airstrikes near Kurdistan, so moving elsewhere, opening new fronts and consolidating control where they can.

The task is urgent, but the changes needed will take many months and years. Prime Minister Mr Abadi has an all but impossible task, whatever his background and beliefs.

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