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At War Against ISIS, Iraqi Premier Is Facing Battles Closer to Home

Friday, 17 October 2014 22:34

BAGHDAD, New York Times — As his country’s security forces struggle to push back the jihadist insurgents of the Islamic State, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, only a month in office, has been battling foes even closer to home: critics within his own party and the Shiite bloc it leads.

Among those nettling Mr. Abadi, several politicians said, is his predecessor,Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who reluctantly agreed to cede the top post under pressure from the United States, Iran and the top Shiite clerics.

The political feuding threatens to undermine the Iraqi government at the moment it is trying to marshal resistance against the Islamic State, not to mention deal with a long list of other domestic crises, including a moribund economy, rampant government corruption and threats of Kurdish secession, Iraqi and international officials said.

“Abadi may very well be the last leader for Iraq capable of reuniting the divided society along a program of national reconciliation,” said Gyorgy Busztin, a deputy United Nations special representative for Iraq.

The rancor stems in part from the internecine Shiite struggle this summer over who would be prime minister. In the deal that allowed Mr. Abadi to take office, Mr. Maliki was given the largely ceremonial post of vice president. But according to politicians in and outside their party, Dawa, and their bloc, State of Law, Mr. Maliki has not gone quietly.

During a closed-door meeting of State of Law last month, Mr. Maliki, its leader, seemed intent on humiliating Mr. Abadi, several participants said, granting him only several minutes to address the assembled politicians and frequently interrupting him.

During one interruption, Mr. Maliki suggested that Mr. Abadi did not have a firm grasp on which foreign forces were operating in Iraq and questioned his protection of the country’s sovereignty, participants recalled. Mr. Abadi said that the country’s sovereignty was ceded in June, under Mr. Maliki’s watch, when Mosul fell to Islamic State fighters.

Mr. Maliki has also refused to give up his prime ministerial offices, in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in the Green Zone, several politicians said.

Neither Mr. Abadi nor Mr. Maliki responded to requests for interviews.

Supporters of Mr. Maliki have enjoyed drawing a contrast between the personalities of the two men, asserting that Mr. Abadi lacks Mr. Maliki’s decisiveness, resolve and charisma — necessary qualities, they say, to lead a country as tumultuous as Iraq.

“Abadi has a weak personality, not a strong personality,” said Hanan Fatlawi, a Shiite parliamentarian and member of the State of Law bloc, who is close to Mr. Maliki. “He has no courage to decide about important things.”

She added, “He is really in a lot of trouble.”

Mr. Abadi’s critics also point to several early missteps, including his failure to win approval, even within his own bloc, for his nominees for defense and interior ministers. Weeks later, the positions still remain unfilled in the middle of war.

“When he brought the candidates and he was crushed, he was really downgraded,” said one Shiite parliamentarian critical of Mr. Abadi. Like several others interviewed, he requested anonymity so as not to be seen publicly criticizing the prime minister.

Mr. Abadi’s detractors, the politician said, “really want to give him a bloody nose.”

The prime minister has also been derided for publicly disclosing in New York last month that his intelligence services had uncovered a terrorist plot to attack the subway systems in New York and Paris, an assertion that was greeted with skepticism by American intelligence officials.

Some of Mr. Abadi’s Shiite critics seem particularly frustrated by his approach toward Sunnis and Kurds, saying that in seeking to adopt a more conciliatory and less sectarian posture than his predecessor, he risked forsaking his Shiite brethren.

Mr. Abadi’s supporters, however, and even some of his critics, commend him for having an open mind and for listening to a broad range of viewpoints.

“Look at the country, at what has happened to Iraq over the last few years!” exclaimed one Shiite parliamentarian and supporter of Mr. Abadi who requested anonymity so as not to damage fragile political alliances. “Prime Minister Abadi wants to unify the country and change the previous policy of divisiveness.”

Mr. Abadi’s early gestures of reconciliation have pleased many Sunni leaders, who had grown disenchanted with Mr. Maliki’s highly sectarian approach.

In interviews, several Sunni leaders offered guarded praise of Mr. Abadi’s early moves, including his decision to block attempts to nominate as interior minister Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization militia, which is loathed by many Sunnis.

They also commend him for his promise to release thousands of prisoners, mostly Sunnis, being held without charges; for his decision to stop the shelling of urban areas where Islamic State fighters were operating, a practice that resulted in many civilian deaths; and for retiring underperforming generals who Mr. Malaki had protected.

“Abadi realized the dangers of continuing Maliki’s path,” said Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni member of parliament. “I think he’s trusting people outside his party. I think this requires a more supportive environment.”

“The first deeds are very clear,” added Maysoon al-Damluji, another Sunni parliamentarian. “But still there’s a lot of road to cover.”

Bahaa al-Aaraji, a deputy prime minister of Iraq and a Shiite, said in an interview that he hoped the discord within the Shiite bloc could be put to rest. Getting Mr. Malaki and Mr. Abadi to engage in constructive, face-to-face dialogue was crucial.

“They don’t talk, they don’t meet,” he said. “We succeed when all the parties are sitting at the same table.”

Then, using Arabic shorthand for the Islamic State, he added, “We can’t succeed against Daesh if we can’t sort out the problems among us.”

Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/16/world/middleeast/at-war-against-isis-iraqi-premier-is-facing-battles-closer-to-home.html?_r=2

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