When Haidar Al-Abadi was named Iraq’s new prime minister in August, Western powers, Iraq’s neighbours and the United Nations lauded his appointment as a promissing step forward in efforts to form a unity government that would work to salvage Iraq from a looming civil war.
US President Barack Obama praised Al-Abadi’s “political vision” and “inclusive nature” and hailed him as the right person to lead Iraq as the country faced an enormous threat from the Islamic State (IS) group that has seized nearly one-third of Iraq’s territory and has been edging towards Baghdad.
Many self-proclaimed Iraq experts in the Western media joined the chorus, drumming up the excitement at Al-Abadi’s appointment. They saw him as the man who would be able to turn around the failing policies of his predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki whose deeply authoritarian and sectarian model of rule has been largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq.
Many Iraqis also hoped that the British-educated Al-Abadi, the holder of a PhD in electronic engineering, would be able to bring about an improvement in Iraq’s fortunes.
In his government programme, Al-Abadi pledged to make the necessary changes, but the question is whether he will be able to deliver on them.
Al-Abadi made a political blunder last week in his first turn on the international stage, telling reporters during a visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly that he had “accurate reports” about IS plans to attack the subway systems in the United States and Paris.
He claimed that the militants were American and French nationals and that they were in Iraqi custody.
US and French officials who would have expected to receive such important information beforehand through official channels said they had no evidence to back up Al-Abadi’s claims. To his further embarrassment, the international media were quick to mock him as being either out of touch or needlessly alarmist.
In other cases, the statement would have been considered as merely a breach of etiquette by a politician who had just taken office and was trying to seize global attention during a major world event. Yet, Al-Abadi’s diplomatic gaffe also revealed a lack of professionalism at a critical time and in a special place.
The blunder has put Al-Abadi’s sense of judgement and leadership qualities under the spotlight at a time when the international community is investing its hopes in him as demonstrating the leadership necessary to resolve Iraq’s lingering ethno-sectarian and power crisis.
Less than a month is hardly enough time to come to a full assessment of Al-Abadi’s governance, but it can certainly function as a diagnostic, especially when framed against the new prime minister’s minimal political experience.
Al-Abadi is an inexperienced leader who lacks the political stamina to deal effectively with complicated issues convincingly and for multiple audiences with their manifold interests and points of view.
With Iraq at a crucial turning point, the key question now is whether Al-Abadi can rise to expectations and provide the needed leadership. If not, he must shoulder responsibility for the failure of his government and eventually the breakup of Iraq.
Al-Abadi has daunting tasks ahead of him, principally to meet at least part of the expectations of ridding Iraq of Al-Maliki’s legacy of sectarianism, authoritarianism, inefficiency, rampant graft and a sclerotic political system.
One of Al-Abadi’s biggest challenges is the war against IS. The air strikes campaign launched by the US-led international coalition may have the potential to disrupt the terror group and limit its ability to make further advances, but it will not destroy the organisation.
The air strikes constitute asymmetric warfare, and the US top brass are not expected to venture into a war that could reveal weakness and vulnerability to adversaries eager to use such attacks.
Therefore, the coalition’s military strategy aims at tasking the Iraqi security forces with defeating the IS by fighting it on the ground. That is something Al-Abadi must undertake in his capacity as commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.
The group seems to have enlarged its membership since the stunning advances it carried out in June to tens of thousands of men, and it has reorganised itself and changed its strategy and tactics significantly. One of the notable tactics it has adopted is to offset its weakness against Iraq’s powerful air force by redeployment in residential areas.
In sum, while the coalition bombardment may have slowed down the advances of the group, it has not so far diminished its ability to operate on multiple fronts in Iraq. To the contrary, IS, which is backed by local Sunni groups and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein loyalists, has been on the offensive in many parts of central Iraq, primarily on the periphery of Baghdad.
A closer look at the Iraq crisis shows pockets held by the group in the Baghdad belt that have been used to break the lines of the Iraqi security forces and threaten the capital.
Last month, the group launched two major attacks north and west of Baghdad and clashed with the security forces and Shia militias in many positions. Reports suggested that the group had deployed chlorine gas in some areas near Baghdad, adding a new dynamic to the war with the Iraqi forces.
The group has been on the offensive in many parts of the Baghdad zone. Last week, militants besieged Iraqi troops stationed west of Baghdad for four days before they overran their barricades and killed some 300 of them. They also seized equipment, weapons and military vehicles including tanks.
Car bombs and road blasts have continued in Baghdad in recent weeks. On 18 September, IS militants attacked a prison run by army intelligence, demonstrating their ability to breach heavy security systems. The explosions in Shia neighbourhoods were designed to show defiance to the Shia militias taking part in the fight against the group.
All in all, Iraq does not seem to have a military approach capable of defeating IS on the ground, and there are doubts of the ability of Al-Abadi to come up with a viable strategy until he starts the general rehabilitation of the Iraqi security forces.
Analysts agree that Iraq’s army is in a shambles, and aggressively combatting IS will need a better-trained and skilled army.
This will also require a leader of high calibre aided by advisors and professional staff chosen primarily for their competence and experience and not sectarian backgrounds and personal loyalties.
Al-Abadi has yet to show that he can make a significant difference to the way the security forces in Iraq were run by his predecessor, who turned them into corrupt and demoralised institutions.
On the political front, confusion also persists. Al-Abadi was expected to form a national unity government that would be tasked with reconciliation, particularly in order to win over Sunni communal leaders alienated by the sectarian approach of the former Al-Maliki government.
Al-Abadi’s government was also expected to end disagreements with the Kurds over sharing power and national resources.
Yet, the new government is far from being inclusive. In many respects it is still too much like the governments that were formed after the 2003 US-led invasion which brought together ethno-sectarian oligarchies from the three main communities, Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, while excluding the broader secular nationalist elites.
Washington has promoted the idea of including Sunnis in policing their areas by creating provincial National Guards as one of the conditions for an increase in US military assistance.
However, thus far Al-Abadi has not taken concrete steps to form the units, and Shia politicians have floated the idea of recruiting Shia militias as counterparts. Al-Abadi also still has no defence or interior minister due to wrangling between Shia and Sunni lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Kurdish ministers have not joined the cabinet pending the resolution of disputes over the state budget, oil revenues, the status of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the future of territories seized by the Kurds during the standoff with IS.
Al-Abadi also has problems with his fellow Shias. Over the past few days many Shias have declared themselves to be baffled by Al-Abadi’s commitment to the fight against IS, including his decision to stop air strikes against insurgent strongholds inside cities.
These Shias believe that the prime minister’s security agenda remains subservient to US preconditions.
One of the main problems that Iraqis expect Al-Abadi to handle is corruption. He has promised not to remain silent about this, but there is very little confidence that what needs to be done to curb graft in Iraq will in fact take place.
Al-Abadi’s cabinet includes some heavyweight Shia members who are expected to press for participation in decision-making. It is unlikely that he will be able to show the fortitude to stand up to them without displaying better leadership skills and quality.
Iraq’s post-Saddam leaders have been the targets of criticism for squandering opportunities to rebuild Iraq into a stable and democratic state. They have shown themselves to be incapable of taking bold and innovative policies in the past. Unfortunately, the same corrupt and greedy elites that were empowered by the US-led invasion are now in the seats of power in Baghdad and are bound to make the same mistakes as their predecessors.
Al-Abadi is not an exception. The way the Americans and other allies have been boosting his ego has been a form of insurance to excuse themselves from the responsibility of the anticipated failure of the campaign against IS, allowing them to blame this on Al-Abadi.
Given this, Iraq needs transformational leaders with strategic vision, courage, integrity and consensus-building abilities to introduce a new set of political initiatives that will transform the way the country is run and make it less like a conglomerate of fiefdoms.
Without such measures, Iraq will not survive the failures of its leaders. Instead, it will suffer regression and end its life as a unitary state all because the leaders who recognise the challenges before them are unwilling or incapable of doing what is needed to surmount them.