Haider al-Abadi’s choices will determine Iraq’s viability as a state

Ali Khedery assesses Iraq’s newly designated prime minister, Haider al-Abadi: Like Mr. Maliki, Mr. Abadi is a Shiite Islamist Arab and a longtime leader in the Dawa Party, an entity that was founded to combat Iraq’s pre-2003 secular state and create a Shiite theocracy. Fueled by generous support from Iran’s intelligence services, Dawa was motivated to bring about change by any means necessary in the 1980s. Its members staged terrorist attacks across Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East in a bid to weaken Hussein and his Western backers. The American and French embassies in Kuwait were bombed; a housing compound of the defense contractor Raytheon was overrun; and there were countless assassination attempts against Hussein and his senior deputies. Sensing an existential threat, the regime declared membership in Dawa to be a capital offense and thousands of suspected members were rounded up, tortured and executed.

Those events still resonate in every Iraqi leader’s mind — on both sides of the sectarian divide. The secular Sunnis and Shiites who were sympathetic to Hussein’s Baath Party rule view Dawa members and other Shiite Islamists as puppets of Iran. Likewise, they see Sunni Islamist parties like Speaker Salim al-Jubouri’s Iraqi Islamic Party as mere extensions of the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists see the secularists as drinking, smoking, whoring agents of Western intelligence services on an unholy crusade to separate mosque and state. Their visions of life, religion and politics are fundamentally incompatible, and that’s the heart of Iraqis’ violent struggle to define themselves and their future.

Increasing Iranian influence has only made matters worse. America sat back and watched in 2010 as Mr. Maliki’s cabinet was formed by Iranian generals in Tehran, thereby assuring its strategic defeat in Iraq. ISIS is a direct outgrowth of that defeat. Sensing an American vacuum, both Mr. Maliki and his Iranian patrons sought to consolidate their gains by economically, politically and physically crushing their Sunni and Kurdish rivals. Consequently, today’s “Iraqi security forces” are almost exclusively Shiite, reinforced by militias financed, trained, armed and directed by Iran. Given Mr. Maliki’s blatant sectarianism and his complicity in Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of genocide against Syria’s Sunnis, Sunni radicalization and the spread of ISIS across the region were predictable.

But if anyone has the potential to unite Iraq and hold it together in the face of ISIS terrorism and Iranian meddling, it is Mr. Abadi. In a society where name and upbringing count for a lot, he comes from a respected Baghdad family and was raised in an upscale neighborhood. He studied at one of the capital’s best high schools, earned a degree from one of its top universities and later received a doctorate in engineering in Britain.

While Mr. Maliki spent his years in exile in Iran and Syria and earned degrees in Islamic studies and Arabic literature, Mr. Abadi, a fluent English speaker, worked his own way through his long and costly studies abroad. In meetings over the past decade, Mr. Abadi always impressed me and other American diplomats with his self-effacing humor, humility, willingness to listen and ability to compromise — extremely rare traits among Iraq’s political elite, and precisely the characteristics that are needed to help heal the wounds Iraqis sustained under Hussein and Mr. Maliki. [Continue reading…]

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