Is al-Abadi the Man to Rebuild and Reunite Iraq?
Haidar Jawad Kadhim al-Abadi is an Iraqi politician, who, like many other Iraqi opposition politicians, lived in exile until April 2003, when former President Saddam Hussein was overthrown after the United States (US) invaded. Fifteen years later, al-Abadi, now prime minster, holds office in the heavily fortified Green Zone, inside the Republican Palace, an imposing building that served as Saddam’s headquarters and instilled fear into the hearts of Iraqis.
After the fall of Saddam, Iraqi opposition figures flooded back to Baghdad to assume posts in the government. Since 1967, al-Abadi has been a member of the Islamic Dawa Party, one of the two main parties in the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (the other being the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) that went on to win a plurality of seats in both the provisional January 2005 elections and the longer-term December 2005 elections – the first held in post-Saddam Iraq. Yet al-Abadi was never the politician who stood out from the crowd or seemed destined to lead.
The party that in the 1970s waged an armed insurgency against Saddam’s Baath regime has long had strong ties with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), mainly because it supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). It still receives financial assistance from Tehran, and Sunni parties accuse it of being subjugate to and complicit in the massive Iranian influence on Iraqi politics. Moreover, Nouri al-Maliki filled the position of prime minister between May 2006 and September 2014.
Under al-Maliki, Iraqi politics were marred by corruption, nepotism and sectarianism, which prompted the US to exert pressure on its ally to replace al-Maliki. In August 2014, Iraqi lawmakers took a significant step towards replacing al-Maliki by nominating al-Abadi, which was immediately welcomed by the Obama administration.
President Obama interrupted his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard to announce in a televised statement that both he and Vice-President Joe Biden had congratulated al-Abadi on the phone, calling his nomination “an important step towards forming a new government that can unite Iraq’s different communities”.
After eight years under al-Maliki and a catastrophic defeat of the Iraqi army, which is heavily armed by the US, by the Islamic State (IS), al-Abadi was viewed as a leader willing to work towards reintegrating the Sunni minority by mending the fences between them and the Shiite majority, regaining territory from IS and bringing prosperity to the beleaguered country.
Politically, al-Abadi seems to resemble his predecessor. Like al-Maliki, his power base is Iraq’s Shiites. But that’s where the similarities end. Al-Abadi is moderate and has shown more of a willingness to compromise than al-Maliki. He is engaging, articulate and direct, characteristics al-Maliki lacked and which brought an end to his rule.
Born in 1952 in Baghdad, al-Abadi studied electrical engineering at the University of Baghdad, graduating in 1975. He subsequently moved to Britain – his family was in conflict with the Baathists after Saddam seized power – and in 1981, he completed a PhD, also in electrical engineering, at the University of Manchester.
In the 1980s, he headed the al-Dawa Party in Britain, becoming part of its executive leadership. During that time, two of his brothers were arrested for being members of the party and eventually died in prison.
Although al-Abadi’s exile was self-imposed, it almost certainly kept him out of Iraq’s prisons where he may have faced the same fate as his brothers. Little information is available about his personal life, but the website of the Iraqi embassy in the US says that he is married and has three children.
Return to Iraq
Upon his return home in 2003, al-Abadi became minister of communications in the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). He continuously opposed the privatization plans of Iraq’s state-owned enterprises by the Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) – a transitional government headed by a senior American diplomat that was established following the US invasion in March 2003 – which for 14 months vested itself with executive, legislative and judicial authority over the IGC.
The CPA’s most disastrous decision was to order the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces. This left thousands of soldiers angry and unemployed and pushed many of them to join the ranks of militant groups, fuelling the Iraqi conflict for years to come.
Between January and December 2005, al-Abadi served as an adviser to the prime minister in the first elected government. He was elected to parliament in 2005 and 2010 and chaired the Parliamentary Committee for Economy, Investment and Reconstruction. In 2013, he chaired the Finance Committee and was at the centre of a parliamentary dispute over the allocation of the 2013 budget – a contentious topic that ended up exploding the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum and the consequences that followed.
Abadi had long been tipped as a potential prime minister and was in contention for the top job in both 2006 and 2010. Politicians and analysts generally agreed that he was a less divisive figure than al-Maliki, which was the prerequisite for much needed change in the country. However, his name would probably not have been put forward without the approval of Iran, which remains the most influential regional player in Iraqi politics.
On 24 July 2014, Fouad Maasoum became the new president of Iraq. He, in turn, nominated al-Abadi for prime minister on 11 August 2014. For the appointment to take effect, al-Abadi was required to form a government to be confirmed by parliament within 30 days. He succeeded in doing so on 8 September, and the parliament approved it alongside his political programme.
In a country grappling with sectarian conflict and the encroaching threat of IS, al-Abadi quickly set about increasing Sunni participation in the government. He appointed Khaled al-Obaidi, a prominent Sunni politician from Mosul, as his defence minister. In December 2014, al-Abadi forged a new revenue-sharing agreement with the Kurds, under which Baghdad agreed to pay the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) half of all income from Kurdish-controlled oilfields. The widespread corruption that had marred the al-Maliki years and led to the fall of Mosul to IS was also targeted. As part of his anti-corruption crackdown, al-Abadi announced that 50,000 ‘ghost soldiers’ – men on the army’s payroll who never showed up for duty – had been identified and would no longer be paid.
Under al-Abadi, Saudi Arabia decided to reopen its Baghdad embassy, which had been closed since the start of the Gulf war in 1990. He also worked to repair relations with other regional players such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, which was positively received by the Sunni community. His visit to Saudi Arabia signalled a new phase in the ties between the two countries and a modus vivendi whereby Saudi Arabia appeared to accept Iraq’s alliance with Iran while Iraq prepared to open up to its Arab neighbour. Al-Abadi has also tried to position his country as a neutral player in the region’s feuds. Although this is unrealistic, given the Iranian influence on Baghdad, it is something he can take credit for. His biggest challenges, however, have been defeating IS, resolving the deep financial crisis and maintaining the country’s geographic integrity in the face of the Kurdish push for independence.
In July 2017, al-Abadi was received in Mosul by a cheering crowd celebrating the liberation of the city from IS. No other Iraqi politician in post-2003 Iraq had been greeted by the people of Mosul in the same way. Short and soft-spoken, he does not look like the textbook version of a war hero. Dislodging IS took over three years, in a gruelling battle that US commanders called the deadliest urban combat since the Second World War.
In October 2017, he ordered the federal armed forces to redeploy to military bases and oil facilities in Kirkuk, which were vacated in June 2014 and subsequently controlled by the KRG as IS approached. This was a bold response to the KRG’s independence referendum the previous month. Despite isolated clashes, the federal government was able to regain control of Kirkuk, cementing al-Abadi’s reputation as a decisive and successful leader.
With the forthcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for 12 May 2018, al-Abadi is running with several achievements under his belt. Yet even though the war is winding down and the security situation is improving, the challenges remain immense, and leading in times of war is very different from leading in times of peace. If re-elected, al-Abadi will have to pay civil servant salaries and pensions on time, curb corruption and rebuild entire cities demolished during the war against IS.
He will also need to put an end to the ambition of militant groups, especially the expansive Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), and an array of politicians who are attempting to control parts of the state as personal or party fiefdoms.
Four years after taking office, al-Abadi has emerged as a seasoned politician due to the different crises he has had to handle. He claims that he has learned some hard lessons and believes the key to avoiding another existential threat is to instill in Iraqis a sense of “nationhood” and inclusiveness, bridging the gap between them and their government and forming a connection similar to the one with their tribal and religious leaders. “People must feel part of this country and like they are citizens of this country,” he told TIME magazine. “At the end of the day, we must deliver to the people.”