Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (in suit) took part in the Iraqi Army Day anniversary celebration in Baghdad Jan. 6.

Can Iraq hold together? How the new Shiite premier is doing.

The Obama administration has long advocated a more inclusive government in Baghdad. Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi still has much to do.

Only one small framed photograph hangs in the office of Sheikh Jabbar al-Fahdawi. It shows him shaking hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has promised inclusive rule in a country at war with itself.

Mr. Fahdawi, a Sunni tribal leader, asked the Shiite premier for “good quality” weapons – and more and better-armed Iraqi troops – to help his tribe repel Islamic State fighters in Sunni lands in western Iraq.

The tribal leader knows well the risks of standing up to Sunni militancy: He carries scars from a bullet in his leg from taking on IS and has other wounds from earlier battles with Al Qaeda. Yet until last spring, many Sunni tribes were actively rebelling against Baghdad – or even supporting IS.

“In two days you will see the support,” the Sunni sheikh recalls Mr. Abadi telling him in late October. Fahdawi is still waiting for that assistance.

Four months after Abadi took office aiming to mend ties between the Shiite-led government and Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni minorities, the failure to provide weapons to Sunni tribes willing to fight IS is symbolic of the deep sectarian distrust that still permeates Iraqi politics.

It also highlights the scale of the problems Abadi faces: While the new prime minister pursues a series of reforms ranging from replacing incompetent commanders to chipping away at rampant corruption, IS militants still control one-third of the country and the Iraqi Army is still trying to rebuild after its humiliating defeats and widespread disintegration last spring and summer.

The challenge facing Abadi was always going to be herculean: how to overcome years – even decades – of sectarian divisions in Iraq, made worse by the unabashedly Shiite-first policies of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

“I think everybody now, in the political spectrum and the country, recognizes this is the last chance for Iraq to survive as we know it,” says Vice President Ayad Allawi, himself a former prime minister. And yet that realization, he adds, hasn’t focused Iraq’s political minds enough.

“Until now, this inclusivity is theoretical rather than actual,” says Mr. Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as interim prime minister from 2004 to 2005 and whose Iraqiya bloc has included top Sunni politicians.

“In parallel with this military effort, we need a political effort, which is not existing until now,” says Allawi. The areas where IS is operating need to be “immunized” by ensuring equal citizenship for Sunnis and mobilizing them to fight IS themselves, “not to be disenfranchised, ignored, and punished. And unfortunately this is not happening.”

An impetus for forging unity

Mr. Maliki, prime minister from 2006 until 2014, is from the same Shiite Dawa party as Abadi. But his actions, including sweeping antiterrorism legislation that left thousands of mostly Sunni Iraqis locked up, and his use of the largely Shiite armed forces to attack Sunni areas in revolt, fanned the Sunni rebellion and created fertile ground for IS to expand in Iraq.

During the Maliki era, Iraqi politics were a personal and sectarian affair. The prime minister failed to appoint key security portfolios, taking them for himself. And corruption was – and still is – rampant. Political blocs often boycotted parliament.

It was the lightning advance of IS last June – capturing Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and a swath of territory in two days – that had a galvanizing effect on Iraqi leaders and eventually led to Maliki’s resignation after eight years in power.

“Everyone is responsible for [the mistakes of the Maliki era], but what happened in June in Mosul was a shock – it gave politicians back their conscience,” says Ammar Toma, a Shiite member of parliament who sits on the Security and Defense Committee.

Among Abadi’s first steps toward reconciliation after succeeding Maliki was to order the end of the indiscriminate shelling of Sunni towns. He also orchestrated an oil export deal with the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north, ending a bitter years-long dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and forestalling a referendum on independence that Iraq’s Kurdish minority had threatened to conduct.

Denting corruption

Crucial to convincing all Iraqis that he has the nation’s interests at heart, and not just those of his fellow Shiites, is Abadi’s approach to years of unbridled corruption.

Already he has made some progress, which makes him popular among ordinary Iraqis of all sects, if not with the politicians, officials, and military chiefs who have long used their posts for personal enrichment.

Abadi replaced more than 20 senior military commanders appointed by Maliki who were deemed incompetent, corrupt, or both. He has worked to remove from the military payroll some 50,000 so-called ghost soldiers who were dead, missing, or did not exist, but for whom senior officers collected pay to the tune of several hundred million dollars each year.

“We have started blowing some big fish out of the water, and we’ll go after them until the end,” Abadi said in November, when announcing the discovery of the ghost soldiers. He said he would continue on that path “even if it costs me my life.”

To succeed with fewer political allies than Maliki, Abadi needs both backing from the religious establishment, as well as on-the-street support.

“When Mr. Abadi changes commanders, it’s a popular demand of the people, and he becomes more popular,” says Mr. Toma, the Shiite MP. Also popular was dealing with the ghost soldier scam.

Toma cautions, however, that any corrupt official Abadi targets will have political allies who will push back.

Therefore, crucial to Abadi’s success is the fact that the Shiite religious establishment – in particular Iraq’s highest ranking Shiite theologian, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani – eventually made a “brave decision” that Maliki needed to go, says Toma.

That intervention “sends a message” of seriousness to other Shiite players and all other political blocs about the need for more inclusive rule. And it has been bolstered ever since by explicit endorsement of the government’s moves during Friday prayers at Shiite mosques.

Those moves included appointing a Sunni defense minister and a Shiite interior minister – both posts held for years in “acting” capacity by Maliki. Nevertheless, the initial names submitted by Abadi were rejected, and the appointments were only approved by parliament in a second vote.

From militias to a National Guard

New measures introduced by Abadi also have cut back on the targeting of Sunnis for arrest and detention. And on the table now is creation of a National Guard so that “sons of the provinces can provide their own security,” Toma says. Sunnis would form their own units working in their own provinces in concert with Baghdad authorities, not unlike Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, which are also meant to play a role in the new force.

The National Guard project is an attempt to redress the Shiite-heavy makeup of Iraq’s military, police, and security forces, which – along with the Shiite militias – are seen as a large part of the problem by Sunnis. The security forces were heavy-handed in their attempts to put down the Sunni uprising from late 2012 – sometimes firing directly into crowds of Sunni protesters.

While the National Guard plan is still not finalized, helping fund it is one part of a two-year, $1.6 billion American package of weapons and training for the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces. Some 80,000 troops are meant to train at four bases, with an estimated $89.3 million worth of new military hardware.

That figure represents just a fraction of the on-paper strength of 1 million personnel in Iraq’s American-built and armed police and military forces. But while senior Iraqi military sources put the country’s military strength at 238,000 in early December, a senior US military official subsequently put the true figure “generously” at just 125,000, The Associated Press reported.

Shiites are so prevalent in Iraq’s police and Army that Sunnis today “behave like Shiites” to ease their passage through checkpoints, wearing Shiite rings and putting pictures of Shiite saints in their car windows, says former Sunni MP and political scientist Talal al-Zobaei.

And on the battlefield, another dilemma: The Iran-backed Shiite militias have been crucial in the fight against IS, but they have also frightened Sunni communities that recoil at reports of human rights abuses in which Sunnis alleged to be collaborators have been killed or kidnapped, and Sunni houses burned.

The sectarian ‘infrastructure’

After ruling for decades with Saddam Hussein at the helm, Iraq’s minority Sunnis today have, since the 2003 US invasion, been criminalized – the leadership a primary target of the de-Baathification process – and marginalized.

Iraq’s problem is a “political infrastructure” that is wholly sectarian, says Mr. Zobaei. The result is that Sunnis have been targeted and disenfranchised, he says, and therefore Abadi came to power in an “incorrect way.”

“There is no qualified authority to lead this country, because in elections candidates say, ‘I am Shia. I will save you from the Sunnis,’ or ‘I am Sunni. I will save you from the Shiites,’ ” says the Sunni former MP.

Though Baghdad itself was deemed in danger last summer – and all of Iraq at risk from splitting along sectarian lines when IS first took control of Mosul – the message of possible doom has not sunk in with all.

Have Iraq’s power players been frightened into action?

Politicians still squabble, hampered by a division-of-spoils political culture that only took a different form after American troops took over in 2003. Abadi is widely credited with at least identifying the problems – from cleaning up government to rebalancing the Shiite-heavy security forces – but actually changing hidebound habits is not so easy.

Concludes Sunni sheikh Fahdawi: “Abadi tried to make a solution, to solve problems, but he can’t do it.”

Abadi the magician?

Abadi is praised in Washington and European capitals as the vanguard of change. But many Iraqis are not convinced there is any difference. A common refrain refers to the chain of Dawa prime ministers, starting with Maliki’s predecessor and current foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who served as premier from 2005 to 2006.

“When Jaafari handed over the premiership to Maliki, we thought that Maliki is better than Jaafari. Maliki left, and now we are saying, ‘Abadi is better than Maliki,’ ” says Salam al-Kubaisi, a Sunni businessman. “Rubbish. They are from the same Dawa party, the same ideology, the same school, the same loyalty, so it’s like playing a joke on yourself.”

And even moves by Abadi that many outside Iraq deem as positive – such as swapping out commanders – are not always seen so inside.

“The changes in the Army are cosmetic rather than radical; there should be a complete restructuring, not only removing X and bringing Y,” says Allawi. All pillars of Iraqi society, he says, from the security forces to the economy and media, remain defined in sectarian terms, “and this makes it all very dangerous, as [Iraq wages] a total confrontation with the forces of extremism.”

Nevertheless, Allawi says, “it is high time now in Iraq; circumstances do encourage reconciliation, because everybody is feeling the pinch of IS: Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Yazidis, what have you.”

But Allawi also warns that without a focus on a political solution “my fear is we may face something even more virulent than the current IS.”

Iraq knows what serious bloodletting means. At its peak, Iraq’s sectarian war and insurgency in 2006-08 saw a death toll as high as 3,000 per month, as once-mixed neighborhoods and villages became ethnically cleansed.

Avoiding a repeat of that killing spree will be Abadi’s biggest challenge, especially as IS, for its part, seeks to radicalize Iraq’s sectarian divisions.

“No single magician can change the Iraqi reality,” says Shiite MP Toma. “It should be a team effort, and for this Abadi needs a fit team that puts the country’s interests over their own.”

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