Amid war and beheadings, Iraq's fresh start

Iraq has tapped a new leader who represents a possible inclusive leadership that can heal religious and ethnic divisions, based on unity around constitutional rights.

Iraq's Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad August 16.

The gruesome news from Iraq – a terrorist invasion, beheadings, airstrikes – may suggest the country’s future depends on which side is the most effective at violence. Yet the real struggle is more hidden, even peaceful.

It lies in a contest to persuade Iraqis of all faiths that they should be united around civic ideals, such as the right of individuals to self-government, that rely on reason and inclusion.

Iraq took a big step in that direction last week when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was forced to relinquish power, marking the country’s first peaceful transition of power in more than a decade. His tyrannical, violent rule had not only set the majority Shiites against minority Sunnis, it had also set Shiite against Shiite. His own ruling Islamic coalition had come to realize that sectarian-based politics had failed, threatening not only Iraqi democracy but the country itself. A political vacuum had left Iraq open to attack by the militants of Islamic State (IS), the group previously known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIS.

A newly designated prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, was chosen to counter the threat from IS – precisely because of his ability to work with disaffected Sunnis as well as ethnic Kurds. “The country is in your hands,” whispered Iraq’s president, Fuad Masum, as he charged Mr. Abadi with the task of forming a new government.

The charming, British-trained electrical engineer knows he must find a firm ground for Iraq’s supercharged identity politics. His first words to the nation were in a Twitter message: “I will stand with the persecuted against oppressors & be the voice of the weak & destitute. Lord take us not to task should we forget or err.”

He was backed by Iraq’s powerful Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called on a new government to “give all Iraqis from different sects and components their rights” and “adopt a different vision to save the country from the dangers of terrorism, civil war, and division.”

Mr. Sistani stands out among Islamic clerics in placing constitutional rights at the center of Iraqi identity. His stance is in sharp contrast to the Shiite clerical rule in neighboring Iran. He has spiritual authority rather than command over a military. Many Iraqis listen when he says a new government provides “a rare positive opportunity for Iraq to open new vistas in solving all its problems.”

He is also very practical, calling on Iraq’s various militias to join under one flag – the Iraqi one. He also asked Abadi to quickly tackle the country’s “massive rampant corruption.”

Abadi, a respected, English-speaking technocrat, faces a difficult task in balancing the demands of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Yet he brings a rare commodity to Iraqi politics: the ability to share decisionmaking.

Such a quality is needed quickly to unite Iraq and reestablish a professional army that can stand up to the terrorist forces of IS. Under Mr. Maliki, the Iraqi military had become a tool of political repression, and all but collapsed as IS advanced.

The Middle East, indeed the world, has a stake in Iraq’s finding strength in a kind of constitutional unity that overcomes religious and ethnic differences. When individual rights are seen as inherent, it helps create a desire to listen and achieve an equitable distribution of power. 

IS has no such sense of inclusion and accommodation. This stark fact has awakened Iraqis to the need to embrace the civic principles that allow them to live with each other peacefully. That will be real victory.

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