Iraq turned a page on a disastrous period in its recent history with the departure of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Malki, whose term in office is now at an end. Maliki has given Saddam Hussein a run for his money in the “worst leader of Iraq” stakes.
It is true that the bloody-handed Saddam was no match for Maliki when it came to sectarianism. But both ruled with an iron fist, and both were responsible for crises which destabilized not only their own country but the entire region. The truth is that they were both dictators; the only difference between them was that one became a dictator through the ballot box, and the other did not.
I don’t think any incoming prime minister in Iraq could be as lucky as Haider Al-Abadi is right now. Not because he is the most able, or because of his astute statesmanship, or even his pragmatism (he is not known for these things, at least not until now). It is because he comes straight after Maliki. If Abadi had sought to carry out the biggest PR offensive he could muster, he would not have managed to achieve one-tenth of the publicity he got just from replacing Maliki. No-one has yet grilled Abadi about his previous positions, which were not really that different from his predecessor’s, but the warm welcome he has received domestically, regionally and globally will gradually fade, leaving a vacuum which will harm the entire Iraqi people if Abadi does not quickly go about changing the woeful reality on the ground. State institutions are falling apart, there is an unprecedented spread of sectarianism where Sunnis are marginalized—to the extent that even US President Barack Obama has spoken out against it (and his country, along with Iran of course, is the one most responsible for complicating the political process in Iraq).
The message of congratulation sent by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, to Abadi on his appointment was not merely an expression of “optimism” as many have suggested; it was a confirmation that Riyadh is willing to extend its hand to work with the new premier, as it did with Maliki when he was first appointed, offering him its hand of help and support, before he began to change, making enemies of all neighboring countries except Iran and Syria. No, this well-intentioned offer of friendship is contingent on the policies which Abadi will take.
Attempts to improve the situation in Iraq will be watched closely, not only from within the country but also around the world. Abadi has three things he must change—and I do not think he can succeed as prime minister without addressing them: reconciling Iraqis, ensuring Iraq’s unity, and improving Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbors. Without tackling these issues, Abadi will never be able to step out of Maliki’s shadow.
What is the recipe for success here, which will allow Iraq’s new government to escape the dire straits it is in? There is no doubt that the provocative atmosphere which Maliki fostered led to a situation where the country’s institutions lost their legitimacy and fell under his personal control. Iraqis, before anyone else, now await the return of the proper separation of powers and their distribution across the country’s institutions, as well as the reform of the security services along professional lines, not sectarian ones as is the case now. The world watched in shock as the Iraqi army collapsed in a humiliating fashion in the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Who can believe that the mighty Iraqi army, with its history and its strength, could fall before a band of terrorists, allowing them to seize the military’s own stockpiles of equipment, weapons and ammunition?
Iraq is going through a severe political and security crisis right now. After being surrounded by danger, Iraq is now being clawed by danger from the inside, with ISIS in control of considerable swaths of territory. These are the results of Nuri Al-Maliki’s policies, something acknowledged even by those closest to him, such as Iran and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. If Abadi adopts his predecessor’s policies—in one way or another—then the catastrophic situation the country is embroiled in will not only continue, it will get worse. We should not forget that Maliki’s influence, along with his sectarian militias and Islamic Da’wa Party—which Abadi has said does not represent him—will be waiting, determined not to let Iraq get rid of Maliki’s legacy so easily.