In his first press conference, Iraqi Prime Minister-Designate Haider Al-Abadi laid out his agenda and the challenges ahead of him as he strives to form a government to succeed the outgoing administration of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. He seems to be well aware of the mammoth task he is facing, but determined to take on the most difficult obstacles. So far, he has many reasons to be confident: wide domestic and international support, the backing of Iraq’s highest religious authorities, and the strong Shia political alliance that endorsed him.
Dr. Abadi revealed his plan to correct the past problems that corrupted the government formation in Iraq, namely, the insolubility of reconciling partisan demands, the imposition of incompetent or corrupt ministers, and the impact of last minute arm-twisting tactics of certain political blocs. He unveiled his determination that “no unreasonable partisan demand would be allowed,” because the government is established “to meet the demands of all Iraqis, not only the demands of a group or a number of certain groups.” He also asked the various key ethno-sectarian groups to “present competent, professional, and non-corrupt ministers”; the government will have representation from all groups, but every minister must work for all Iraqis and not only serve his sect or ethnicity. If enforced well, this will be a major departure from past governments that treated every political position as a lot for a certain group.
On the security front, Dr. Abadi applauded the Iraqi security forces and the volunteers who signed up in response to the fatwa (religious edict) by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to defend Iraq against the terrorists of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). These volunteers came under attack in recent days by a few Sunni politicians, who are sympathetic with ISIL, and others who are not comfortable with the existence of Shia militias. Dr. Abadi’s statement affirmed the importance of those fighters by saying that Iraq’s “strategy depends on the integration of these volunteers” into the war effort. But he also affirmed the necessity of keeping all arms under the supervision of the state to prevent any possible abuse by some uncontrolled armed civilians. By taking this position, the PM-Designate reconciled the two legitimate concerns of having a strong reserve of dedicated fighters and ensuring that their arms are not pointed at the wrong targets. He also cautioned the Iraqi Air Force and other military units against uncalculated action that may cause harm to innocent civilians, noting that the fight in Iraq is intended to secure the civilians, not to harm them.
On the political front, Dr. Abadi affirmed his commitment to working with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to reach reasonable solutions for the ongoing disputes over revenue-sharing, land disputes, security issues, and many other unsolved disagreements. Needless to say, his success on this front will depend on the type of compromise the two sides are willing to make. Mutually exclusive positions have prevailed in the past, preventing the arrival at the desired solutions. The next round of negotiations need to take place in an environment of better trust and more assurance from both sides: the federal government must assure the Kurds that all promises will be fulfilled, and the Kurds must assure Baghdad that they are not going to use the concessions to set the stage for secession. One such positive sign of trust is Dr. Abadi’s approval of an arms purchase by the KRG, as long as it was going through the federal government with the KRG being the “end-users.” This is a major departure from federal government practices.
Internationally, Dr. Abadi expressed his appreciation of the wide support he received, reciting a long list of countries that endorsed his nomination, including regional countries known for their negative role in Iraq. He promised to open a new chapter with all interested countries in order to forge an era of cooperation. It remains to be seen whether countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are going to reconsider their mixed positions toward a Shia-led government, and if Iran is going to reduce its interference in intra-Shia politics.
Perhaps the most striking statement Dr. Abadi made was his closing remark. He said, “I am not ready in the future to send units from the south to fight in Mosul and Anbar. I want the people of Mosul to liberate Mosul, the people of Anbar to liberate Anbar…and I will support them.” This can be understood in two meanings: either Dr. Abadi wants to expose the cooperation between the locals in these provinces with ISIL, or the new government plan will be to shift the military burden from the southern Iraq to the provinces where conflict prevails in order to end the double resentment of making Shia soldiers fight in Sunni towns. By “double resentment,” I am referring to the resentment of the Sunni locals who feel offended by seeing Shia soldiers’ presence in their towns and the resentment of Shia communities who refuse to continue sacrificing the lives of their sons to defend predominantly hostile provinces. Either way, this position is going to address many security problems and therefore can be considered a step in the right direction.
However the prospects of government formation in Iraq might be, Dr. Abadi will need all the help he can get to assemble a cabinet acceptable to the Iraqi Parliament and a continued commitment from Parliament to help him face the mounting challenges ahead of him when he starts to govern. So far, Sunni Arabs and the KRG have placed the most pressure on the government to accommodate their partisan demands. The time ahead requires agreement on all sides to give up destructive bickering and work together for the good of all Iraqis.
Photo Credit: Karim Kadim/AP