Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s recently appointed Prime Minister, is not yet a full-fledged success, but he is doing all he can to bring stability to his volatile country, a panel of experts said on Monday.
“I think relative to where Iraq was in the past, there’s been some markers of progress against beating back ISIS militarily. [Al-Abadi’s] been slightly better in terms of dealing with the optics and the general mood of sectarian issues, but there’s a heck-of-a-lot of work that needs to be done,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive institution.
Katulis applauded al-Abadi’s openness, which has allowed international bodies to enter the country and document humanitarian issues.
“His commitment, his statement, about the need for international monitors, his openness to it, I think is important. It sounds soft, but it’s not, it cuts to the core,” Katulis said.
The American Enterprise Institute hosted the discussion about al-Abadi’s policies and what they mean for Iraq and U.S. – Iraq relations.
“Those things [al-]Abadi said, about protection for human rights, it sounds wholly unrealistic, in the current context of Iraq, especially with ISIS doing what it’s doing, but keeping that as part of the equation I think is essential for the long-term stability of the country,” Katulis said.
Al-Abadi authored an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 18, writing: “We need the international community to help us assist the two million refugees within our borders who have been displaced by the terrorism of ISIS and the civil war in Syria. With winter approaching, they need humanitarian aid, as will the residents of the areas that we are liberating from Daesh [ISIS].”
A criticism of al-Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, was his lack of action in easing tensions among Iraq’s sectarian society, namely Sunni and Shiite groups.
“[Al-Abadi] has, in some ways, at least bridged the Sunni grievance issue. You have Sunni Arab officers who just a year ago were vowing to create their own region or to leave and now are at least moving back in toward the fold. That is a significant accomplishment,” said Denise Natali, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies. “I think after a year that the [al-]Abadi government has done things that I couldn’t have imagined done in five years with the [al-]Maliki government.”
Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation, spoke about the prime minister’s trip to Washington. He said al-Abadi knows that he needs the assistant of the U.S. government to prevent Iraq from spiraling into chaos.
“I think what he’s bringing is a request … to ‘help us not go there.’ The best way for there to not be a return of [al-]Maliki or for Iraq not to turn into an Iranian vassal state, or for that matter, for Iraq not to splinter, is continuing strong ties with the United States,” he said.
Whether or not the state will fragment is unpredictable.
“There is this sense of [Iraqi] identity. There is something there for the government to work with. I think that is Prime Minister [al-]Abadi’s challenge. If he can tap into the nationalist strains; there is something he can work with. But conversely those nationalist strains could be allowed to fade and perhaps one day die away,” Ollivant said.