Iraq Taps Former Exile as Premier to End Deadlock Behind War

Haidar al-Abadi, the Shiite politician picked to lead Iraq’s next government, will have to roll back the policies of the prime minister he’s trying to replace to unify a country splitting apart on sectarian lines.

Abadi will need to be conciliatory and inclusive to confront the political challenges inherited from Nouri al-Maliki and build a government capable of taking on the Sunni militant group that has seized large areas of Iraq, said Ismaeel Zaier, an independent political analyst in Baghdad.

Abadi, who was born in 1952, has “kept himself away from the disputes,” and has been “a very good and quiet negotiator,” Zaier said in a phone interview. “He has very good ties with all Iraqi political sides and ethnic groups. The first test facing him is how to form a government that represents all Iraqis.”

In Baghdad, Abadi moved ahead with efforts to form a new cabinet today, state-sponsored Al-Iraqiya TV reported, citing a statement from his office. A day earlier, he said that he was “hopeful” and “open-minded” about creating a government to confront the nation’s problems, al-Arabiya television said.

Only hours after Abadi was named prime minister-designate, the political crisis in Baghdad deepened as Maliki rejected President Fouad Masoum’s nomination of the deputy speaker of Parliament as “legally worthless.” Maliki said that as the leader of the biggest faction in the legislature following inconclusive April elections, he should be given the chance to lead a third-term administration.

Maliki’s Defiance

Maliki said today in televised address that he won’t step down until there is a ruling by the country’s federal court on Abadi’s nomination. Earlier in the day, a few thousand Maliki supporters demonstrated in al-Firdos square in central Baghdad, chatting “Maliki is our choice.”

“This government will continue and won’t be changed until a federal court decision is made,” Maliki said. “We hope that everyone abides by this legal framework to avoid exposing the country to more tremors.”

Still, his international support is crumbling. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Council, congratulated Abadi yesterday on his selection as the next prime minister, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today said that with the selection of Abadi “knots will be untied” and a “government will be formed so it can get to work.”

Maliki ‘Abandoned’

For senior Sunni politician Dhafir al-Ani, it is only a matter of time before Maliki has to accept “the reality” that “those who backed him in the past have abandoned him now.”

He won’t be able to rely on the army to back him either, because of limited support, al-Ani, a lawmaker with the Sunni Mutahidoun political bloc, said by telephone.

“We don’t think if Maliki issues an order to the army that it will respond,” he said.

The U.S. and some Iraqi leaders have blamed Maliki’s policies for the success of Sunni militants, and President Barack Obama has tied expanded U.S. military strikes to the formation of a more inclusive government to ease sectarian and ethnic divisions. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said yesterday that Maliki is “largely responsible for this mess.”

‘Promising Step’

Obama called the selection of Abadi a “promising step” and didn’t mention Maliki in brief remarks on Aug. 11 during his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

“It is too early to judge Abadi,” Hiwa Othman, a Kurdistan-based political analyst, said by phone. “Given the huge number of challenges left by Maliki, he will need a lot of help from everybody, and will need to behave differently than Maliki.”

For Abadi to succeed, he’ll have to “provide a vision for the future of the country,” Othman said. “National reconciliation will have to be based on true power sharing.”

Abadi has warned that Iraq faces a possible return to sectarian civil war if rifts are not healed. “Shiite are not against Sunnis and Sunnis are not against Shiite,” he said in a Jun. 30 interview with the Huffington Post.

As Islamic State militants began their offensive by seizing the northern city of Mosul in early June, they won the support of some Sunni tribes who accuse Maliki’s Shiite-dominated administration of ignoring the community.

Brothers Executed

Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. is prepared to assist a newly formed Iraqi government with stepped-up political and security assistance to beat back the militants, including reviving local militias that were employed during the later years of the American presence in Iraq.

Abadi left Iraq after graduating from university to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. He received a Ph.D. from Manchester University in the U.K. in electrical engineering in 1981. Two of his brothers were executed in 1982 and another was imprisoned for 10 years, according to information on the website of the country’s parliament. He was himself stripped of Iraqi citizenship in 1983.

Abadi “suffered a lot under the former regime,” Iraq analyst Zaier said. “He was able to get over that and continue his life.”

When he returned in 2003 after U.S. forces toppled Hussein, Abadi started his political career as the country’s interim minister of communications. He served as the head of the parliament’s economic and investment committee in 2006, a post he held until 2010. Then he served as president of the financial committee in the parliament from 2011 to 2014.

Some Iraqis struggling through the latest bout of political turmoil and sectarian violence welcomed Abadi’s appointment. Hussain Abdul Ameer, a 30-year-old water-pump store owner, thanked God “and Obama for helping get rid” of Maliki, who he described as a “dictator.”

“He lives in another world and still doesn’t want to give up,” Ameer said. “For more than eight years, we haven’t seen anything good.”

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