With much of Iraq in chaos and a political crisis exploding in Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi was named the country’s new prime minister Monday. The hope is that a new leader can help unify the nation and lead it out of its brutal sectarian violence.
But who is al-Abadi? Born in Baghdad in 1952, al-Abadi was educated at the University of Baghdad and later received a doctorate from the University of Manchester in Britain. He lived in Britain for many years after his family was targeted by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. He was trained as an electrical engineer, but he entered politics after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He became minister of communications in the Iraqi Governing Council in September 2003, then was a key adviser to Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq’s first post-invasion elected government. Just weeks ago, he was elected deputy speaker of parliament, and he has been considered a contender for prime minister after the past two elections.
The bigger question, however, is whether al-Abadi can overcome the challenges confronting Iraq more successfully than the incumbent, al-Maliki, who is still trying to cling to power. Like him, al-Abadi belongs to the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and is a member of the governing State of Law coalition. One of the chief criticisms of al-Maliki was that he entrenched Iraq’s sectarian politics, filling the government with Shiite politicians and limiting Sunni and Kurdish power.
Earlier this summer, al-Abadi gave a striking interview to the Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan in which he discussed the possibility of Iranian help in the fight against the Islamic State, the Sunni extremist group that has taken over vast swaths of Iraq.
“We are waiting for the Americans to give us support,” al-Abadi said in the June interview. “If U.S. airstrikes 1/8happen3/8, we don’t need Iranian airstrikes. If they don’t, then we may need Iranian strikes.” Abadi has also had differences with Iraq’s Kurdish minority at points: Last year, he warned that a dispute over Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil exports could lead to the “disintegration” of the country, and he was criticized by Kurdish politicians during the negotiations over the 2013 budget.
However, al-Abadi does seem to be aware that the Iraqi government and security forces have made serious mistakes in the current conflict. He told Hasan that the government needed to listen to stories of the “excesses” of the Shiite-dominated security forces to decide how to respond. And he was clear that Iraq had to avoid being dragged into the type of war the Islamic State clearly desires.
“We have to be careful not to become involved in a sectarian war,” he told Hasan. “Shias are not against Sunnis and Sunnis are not against Shias.”
Reidar Visser, an academic expert on Iraqi politics, said that although Abadi comes from the same political faction as al-Maliki, he enjoys much broader support, especially from Kurds and Sunnis.
Part of this is his more distinguished background. “Many of the elites from the Governing Council era consider him one of their own in terms of a prestigious family background, whereas Maliki was seen as more of an upstart from humble origins,” Visser noted in an email. “Things like that count in the 1/8old-fashioned and traditional3/8 Iraqi establishment.”
Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London who follows Iraqi politics, says that al-Abadi has a reputation for skilled diplomacy and has a much better chance of forming a national-unity government than his predecessor. “Without Maliki, it isn’t going to be easy,” al-Khoei explains, “1/8But3/8 with Maliki, it will be impossible.”
Al-Khoei added that it remains to be seen exactly how al-Maliki will react to the appointment.
“To give you an indication of how bad the situation is, many are now worried about Abadi’s physical security,” he said.
President Fouad Massoum, a Kurd, seemed confident Monday that al-Abadi could lead the country. “Now the Iraqi people are in your hands,” he said as he shook al-Abadi’s hand. Now Iraq waits to see whether al-Maliki will acquiesce.