Haider al-Abadi

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Prime Minister of Iraq

You are Haider al-Abadi, the Prime Minister of Iraq.

“Both men come from the same Shiite Islamist movement whose members, after decades of clandestine opposition to Saddam Hussein and the Sunni elite that dominated his rule, were asked to govern Iraq in an inclusive way that accommodated the Sunnis they considered their former tormentors.”

In a cover story written on the occasion of your being chosen to form a government (“Next Leader May Echo Maliki, but Iraqis Hope for New Results,” New York Times, 8-20-14, Page 1A) and serve as Iraq's Prime Minister, authors Tim Arango and Michael R. Gordon write of the commonality between you and your predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, and the personal, as well as the political challenges you face as you begin your tenure as Prime Minister. Journalists do tend to exaggerate things for effect, though...right? Things couldn't be all that bad, could they?

Well, how’s this for a job description? You take office at a time when the shaky political and military structure of your country, painstakingly built anew over the previous decade, is at serious risk of total collapse. Of course, the major factor feeding Sunni militancy is the change in power that took place with the American invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s ability, as a member of the Sunni minority, to maintain control in majority-Shiite Iraq was a tale rife with brutality, but was also a source of stability…of a kind. With his overthrow, the Shiite majority gained the political edge, an upheaval that still rocks Iraq. Another major factor in creating the conditions that have led to this circumstance is the political arrogance shown by your predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who, elected with the charge of helping to build national cohesion and a sense of investment in the new Iraqi government, too often resorted to feathering the nest of his Shiite allies at the expense of Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds. The extent of the trouble that was fueled by Maliki’s actions came clear when the Sunni extremist militias of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured large swathes of land in northern Iraq from the Iraqi army, an eventuality that caused both Washington and Tehran to join most Iraqi politicians in reacting with horror, and to move behind the scenes to help orchestrate Maliki’s removal from power, along with the imposition of American air power to combat ISIS forces. Mr. Maliki refused for several days to give up his position as Prime Minister, even though he had legally been relieved of his duties by Iraq’s President, who had turned to you to form a new government. Finally, Maliki relented, bowing to domestic and foreign pressure. You now find yourself holding the most powerful political post in Iraq at a time when this is an especially precarious position to be in. In such a fractured state, you hold the dubious honor of being the one charged with attempting to bring together the disparate sects, and moving the nation forward in a single direction. Iraq's failure or success will be hung on your shoulders. No one can say that the road ahead of you will be an easy one to walk, and it is one that will certainly test you. You will be asked to walk a cautious line between Iraq's factions, to weigh the cost of action and inaction, and to succeed at any cost.

Some will ask how you, as a member of Maliki’s political party and a longtime ally, could possibly be the person to rectify the damage done by Maliki, and to convince the various Iraqi political and religious communities (including your own!) that it is in their interest to give up some power for the sake of building a stronger whole. This is a fair question, but as you prepare your response for this question, we offer you some things to consider:

  • By all accounts, Maliki craved power and frequently used intimidation tactics and paid out a good deal of money in his attempts to win political support. There is nothing in your history to indicate that you have a similarly all-consuming drive for power, and you were not implicated in any of the heavy-handed tactics employed by Maliki. As a consequence, your motives won’t be so readily questioned, and you may find yourself with a slightly more in which to maneuver.
  • You were able to quietly rally opposition to Maliki within your Dawa Party, while not conveying any sense of a grab for personal power. Indeed, for quite some time your name did not even come up when potential successors to Maliki were mentioned. Again, you’re seen by many as being more interested in the “greater good” than the average politician.
  • You have a reputation, burnished over years as a member of parliament, as a skilled and moderate politician who is willing to compromise. Once again we see a contrast between you and Mr. Maliki here. In the long years of exile, and of opposition to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, Maliki was in Syria, involved with clandestine anti-government security operations, while you worked, in Britain and at a far greater remove, in political affairs. You cultivated a more urbane and diplomatic style, and you will need to draw on these abilities, and this reputation, both early and often.
  • You are regarded as being friendly to, or at least as understanding the West, having lived in exile in Britain for many years and speaking English fluently. Indeed, it was this aspect of your story that made the Iranians concerned about supporting you, and the Iranian leaders had to be convinced that you were not “in the pocket” of the Americans. Your actions will be watched, and watched closely.
  • Both the Americans and Iranians are in your corner. The Americans were unwilling to commit air power to combating ISIS forces without a replacement for Maliki in place, and after some deliberations, the Iranians agreed to support your candidacy as well. Iran worried that it would become a target for ISIS forces unless they supported you and the Iraqi forces so that ISIS advances could be arrested in Iraq. Right now, you have the active support of Iran and the United States, and this will definitely give you some breathing room in your effort to combat ISIS. You also know that the United States is strongly committed to protecting the Kurdish minority in Iraq and Syria, and this political and military commitment will definitely work to your advantage for time being.
  • You have a great deal of personal credibility, having been made an exile by Saddam Hussein, who viewed you and the Dawa Party—the primary party of Iraq’s Shiite opposition—as a threat. Indeed, two of your brothers were executed for membership in Dawa, and your passport was revoked, forcing you into exile until 2003. At this time, being seen as a principled person who was willing to place country over personal benefit will be a big asset as you ask your fellow Iraqis, effectively, to do the same thing, and to think about the long term.
  • One of your key achievements has been your success in bringing tribal leaders together to fight back against extremist groups. This key part of the work that must be done now in Iraq is something that you have already engaged in successfully, having been put in charge of ridding the key northern city of Tel Afar of Al-Qaeda forces in 2005, and successfully rallying local Sunni leaders to successfully complete this task.
  • While many Iraqis are saying that the grand experiment of creating a country for all Iraqis is a failure, and that Iraq and Syria should be divided into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions, you are on record as advocating for a unified Iraq, and have further stated that compromise will be crucial in achieving this, and the assistance of Iran, the United States and others will be welcome.

You must weigh every action carefully. One very auspicious sign after you were offered the Prime Ministership was that the Kurdish leader, Hoshyar Zebari, agreed to rejoin your government and resume service as Foreign Minister. Mr. Zebari had resigned from the Maliki government, and this provided a clear sign that Maliki’s tenure was at an end. Offending the Kurds could lose you their support in the parliament and cost you dearly—your relationship with Zebari is something to build upon. Offending the Sunnis could rekindle violence throughout the nation, and this is where things get delicate. Even though you’re not a hard-edged leader like Maliki, your party’s gains have often come at the cost of political losses by the Sunnis. You will need to convince mainstream Sunni politicians that it is in their interest to resist ISIS and to participate in and support the government. You’ll have to share power and work on rebuilding trust in an environment where this will be no simple matter. At the same time, you’ll ultimately be held to account to the extent that you advance the station of Iraq’s Shiites. Iraq is a nation that has run on corruption, and because the government has run on the idea that obedience will result in promotion and advancement, people have grown to expect that things will happen a certain way. Your job will be to make small, but noticeable changes to the political culture in Iraq, such that the Shiites feel their interests are being protected, while Sunnis and Kurds feel that they won’t be pushed around and made to feel like outsiders again.

You also need to consider balancing your allies. You rely on the support of Shiites to keep you in power. To further ingratiate yourself to this group, you have established close ties with Iran. This is not a move that partners such as the U.S have applauded, but they have come to see it as necessary, and your ascension to the Prime Ministership took place with the support of two parties who rarely see eye-to-eye: Iran and the United States. However, you have not rushed into these relationships without careful planning. You must see to it that your close relations with Iran will not jeopardize your relations with the U.S., as you still need the U.S to support and help fund your government. You must also do your best to make sure that your relationship with the U.S does not jeopardize your relations with Iran. You must, in short, become a master of walking the political tight rope. Nouri al-Maliki was a politician who was not afraid to punish his enemies, nor to reward his friends. Those who had an axe to grind with Maliki soon found their lives becoming more complicated, and as this happened, many in Iraq came to feel that the deck was stacked against them, an eventuality which contributed to a greater willingness by Iraqi Sunnis to offer their support (or at least to look the other way) as ISIS made its move. You will need to craft and control the message your government puts out, and to create a situation in which all Iraqis feel that they have a stake in the success of your government.

Your goal is to make sure that Shiites are strong in government, but you must also make sure that Sunnis don't feel you that you are stacking the deck against them. If they begin to feel that way, they may feel that they have no other choice but to take up arms against you, or to throw their support to ISIS. In such a conflict you would not be victorious. Your success in gaining this support will determine how successful your tenure will be...you will need to bring to bear all of your considerable political skills and relationships in the service of reaching this goal. It should also be clearly stated that even as you’ll be asking others to trust you, or to think about the future, or to embrace the ideal of a nation that gains strength from its diversity, that you yourself will also need to change, and to fully embrace this view. You grew up with a deep and abiding suspicion of Iraqi Sunnis, and were schooled in the attitude that you had to fight for your group, and to focus on that fight. So as you ask your fellow Iraqis to let go of historical grievances, to take risks, and trust their fellows, you must seek to do all of these things as well. We wish you good luck, sir…

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