Iraqis have put their hope in the country’s newly elected prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. Having come to power as a result of Iraq’s current crisis, Abadi’s job is now to lead his country in the struggle against the so-called Islamic State, a Sunni extremist organization that now controls large swaths of the country.
However, because the rise of the Islamic State is a consequence of the destructive policies of Iraq’s political elites, its removal cannot simply be achieved with military means. It requires addressing the roots of the Islamic State’s newfound legitimacy in Iraq’s Sunni areas. For Abadi, this requires a move away from his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki’s policies, which fed Sunni grievances and brought about a loss of trust in the new Iraq. In doing so, the strongest challenge to Abadi comes not from the Sunni Arab or Kurdish blocs, but from within the Shia Islamist landscape, not least from within his own Dawa Party—and specifically from the party’s chairman, Maliki, who remains very active on the political scene three months after being forced out of the premiership.
Maliki was Iraq’s prime minister from 2006 to 2014, and his legacy is complex. He first brought Iraqis out of a civil war, the one of 2006–2007, but then led them back into another, in 2014.
In the 2008–2010 period, the Sahwa movement (also known as the Sunni Awakening) brought local autonomy for Sunni leaders and helped them regain their trust in the state. But this era of good governance would prove short-lived. In the following years, Maliki overcentralized state power and magnified the Sunni threat. By creating an Office of the Commander in Chief, he assumed personal control over the military. He also placed his son, Ahmed al-Maliki, in charge of the Green Zone, the area of Baghdad that houses the government, where he became notorious for purging mainly Sunni protesters.
With political institutions hijacked by Maliki, the Sunni opposition took to the street to demonstrate. These protesters were not treated as citizens relaying grievances, but rather as foreign insurgents bent on destroying Iraq. In the city of Hawija, in April 2013, their voice was violently silenced by a military crackdown.
These policies shattered any trust that Sunnis had in the central government and gave the Islamic State an opportunity to step out from obscurity. Throughout 2014, its influence grew rapidly until it finally captured Iraq’s second city of Mosul in June. Maliki, who had rid Iraq of militarized sectarianism, was now responsible for its reemergence.
Moving Past Maliki’s Legacy
In combating the Islamic State, Abadi is attempting to roll back his predecessor’s policies. He has taken symbolic steps to project a new image of the prime minister as a civil servant, without grand titles or the customary portrait in government buildings. He has also eliminated the Office of the Commander in Chief and appointed Khaled al-Obeidi, an Iraqi Sunni from Mosul, as defense minister. His cabinet includes representatives from different blocs, and the Sunni-backed centrist Ayad Allawi—who Maliki deprived of power—has been appointed vice president, tasked with reaching out to the Sunni street. The former governor of the Central Bank, Sinan al-Shabibi, who was forced into exile under Maliki, has confirmed that Abadi reached out to him, too. Shabibi’s criminal case has been withdrawn and he is now back in Baghdad.
The new prime minister openly acknowledges that Iraq’s security sector is in shambles—something Maliki was never willing to admit. He is critical of what he calls his predecessor’s “shadow state” and has taken steps to dismantle it. Abadi recently relieved several Maliki-linked generals and commanders of their positions within the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). He has also removed Maliki’s longtime ally, Adnan al-Asadi, who was a powerful security adviser at the Interior Ministry. By purging those responsible for crimes against Sunnis in the past, Abadi is attempting to initiate a new post-Maliki era of Iraqi politics.
In seeking to regain trust from Sunni Iraqis, Abadi is not only attempting to train and pay fighters from Sunni tribes, but he recently passed down a ruling to send arms to the Anbar Province. Abadi also wants to create a national guard within the ISF, which is widely viewed as a Sahwa-inspired attempt to reach out to Sunni tribal forces and reconnect them with the state.
At the same time, the new prime minister seeks to rein in the Shia militias that, according to Amnesty International, act with “absolute impunity” and have played a major role in provoking Sunni anger. Unlike Maliki, who used militias for his extralegal interests, Abadi has expressed his preference for the institutionalization of the security sector. Speaking to me last winter, Abadi, who was at the time only a member of parliament, admitted that the “continuing terrorist activities may lead to retaliations and the problem of people taking the law in their own hand. This has to be stopped.”
Maliki’s Continued Dominance in Iraq
Although no longer prime minister, Maliki is still influential as vice president and head of the Dawa Party, to which Abadi belongs. He continues to work politically and still seeks a public role. In a recent article in the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, Maliki wrote that it is necessary for the Dawa Party to practice renewal and self-review, apparently aiming to remind Iraqis and party members that he—not Abadi—is in charge of the party. Torn between Maliki and Abadi, the Dawa Party is now slowly splitting into two camps.
The former prime minister’s large inner circle of allies also remains influential in Iraqi politics. Under secretaries extralegally appointed by Maliki continue to roam through the different ministries. When Abadi tried to remove Maliki’s son and 84 former employees from the Green Zone, Maliki simply had them reinstated to the Office of the Presidency. Maliki’s control over the justice system was on full display when his allies sentenced Sunni lawmaker Ahmed Alwani to death, a move that has angered Sunni tribal leaders and threatens to undermine Abadi’s push for reconciliation.
Last but not least, Maliki remains active in crafting regional policy and rallying pan-Shia support. He recently went to Iran to hold meetings with Tehran’s senior leadership, including President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and followed this with a trip to Lebanon, where he met with Hezbollah’s Secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah.
A Weak Prime Minister
Hanan Fatlawi, a member of parliament from the prime minister’s State of Law Coalition, has told me that “Haider al-Abadi is a very weak person and that is not only my opinion but the opinion of all politicians who have been working with Abadi.... He is a hesitant person unable to make decisions alone.”
To rule Iraq effectively, Abadi must not only take on the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He must also move out of the shadow of his own predecessor. It will be a difficult task, but there’s a historical precedent: Abadi may have been elected as a weak leader, but so was Maliki back in 2006. Yet, eight years later, Maliki had grown into Iraq’s dominant political figure. Can Abadi repeat this stunning success—and can he do it without also repeating Maliki’s mistakes?