“The country is in your hands,” whispered Iraq’s president, Fuad Masum, on Aug. 11 as he charged the newly designated prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, with forming a cabinet. “May God help you,” another lawmaker added. Indeed, after last week’s sidelining of the country’s long-serving prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Mr. Abadi will need all the divine intervention he can get if Iraq is to be spared a descent into all-out civil war.
I was involved in the formation of all five of Iraq’s governments between 2003 and 2010, and I know that the coming weeks will be decisive, turbulent and violent, as leaders from all factions jockey for both power and money — to help represent their respective communities and to siphon away billions of government dollars through systemic patronage.
After spending more than $1 trillion and losing some 4,500 soldiers’ lives, American politicians cannot dare reveal a dirty little secret: Iraq has since 2003 devolved into a combination of Lebanon and Nigeria — a toxic brew of sectarian politics and oil-fueled kleptocracy. The combination of religious rivalry and endemic corruption has hollowed out the Iraqi government, as evidenced by the country’s ongoing electricity crisis and the collapse of entire Iraqi Army divisions in the face of an advance by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, into Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, even though the Iraqi troops vastly outnumbered the militants.
Over the past century, Iraq has suffered from regional wars, British colonialism, numerous coups, disastrous invasions of its neighbors Iran and Kuwait, international sanctions, an American military occupation and nearly four decades of misrule by Saddam Hussein and Mr. Maliki.
Once the capital of Arab culture, philosophy and commerce, Iraq is today an international pariah and incubator of transnational terrorism, where regional actors are engaged in a bloody proxy war that threatens to spill across borders and destabilize the entire region.
Mr. Abadi has inherited a country on the verge of collapse. Whether Iraq will shatter or be salvaged is not in his hands alone. It will depend on a dizzying number of other leaders, political parties, nonstate actors, and neighboring and global powers.
IN accepting the post of prime minister, Mr. Abadi has essentially accepted the role of being the conductor of Iraq’s unruly political symphony. Whether he’ll be able to form a national unity government that equitably represents Iraqis of all creeds and political ideologies will be critical. As with a finely calibrated orchestra, his ministers will need to work hard as individuals and listen to and accommodate each other. Iraqi leaders will need to cooperate in a way that they never have since the 1958 revolution if they are to avert a lengthy civil war — one that would likely precipitate a regionwide Sunni-Shiite holy war.
As in 2006, when an obscure Iraqi parliamentarian, Mr. Maliki, became Iraq’s leader, the world is again asking: Who is Iraq’s new prime minister?
Like Mr. Maliki, Mr. Abadi is a Shiite Islamist Arab and a longtime leader in the Dawa Party, an entity that was founded to combat Iraq’s pre-2003 secular state and create a Shiite theocracy. Fueled by generous support from Iran’s intelligence services, Dawa was motivated to bring about change by any means necessary in the 1980s. Its members staged terrorist attacks across Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East in a bid to weaken Hussein and his Western backers. The American and French embassies in Kuwait were bombed; a housing compound of the defense contractor Raytheon was overrun; and there were countless assassination attempts against Hussein and his senior deputies. Sensing an existential threat, the regime declared membership in Dawa to be a capital offense and thousands of suspected members were rounded up, tortured and executed.
Those events still resonate in every Iraqi leader’s mind — on both sides of the sectarian divide. The secular Sunnis and Shiites who were sympathetic to Hussein’s Baath Party rule view Dawa members and other Shiite Islamists as puppets of Iran. Likewise, they see Sunni Islamist parties like Speaker Salim al-Jubouri’s Iraqi Islamic Party as mere extensions of the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists see the secularists as drinking, smoking, whoring agents of Western intelligence services on an unholy crusade to separate mosque and state. Their visions of life, religion and politics are fundamentally incompatible, and that’s the heart of Iraqis’ violent struggle to define themselves and their future.
Increasing Iranian influence has only made matters worse. America sat back and watched in 2010 as Mr. Maliki’s cabinet was formed by Iranian generals in Tehran, thereby assuring its strategic defeat in Iraq. ISIS is a direct outgrowth of that defeat. Sensing an American vacuum, both Mr. Maliki and his Iranian patrons sought to consolidate their gains by economically, politically and physically crushing their Sunni and Kurdish rivals. Consequently, today’s “Iraqi security forces” are almost exclusively Shiite, reinforced by militias financed, trained, armed and directed by Iran. Given Mr. Maliki’s blatant sectarianism and his complicity in Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of genocide against Syria’s Sunnis, Sunni radicalization and the spread of ISIS across the region were predictable.
But if anyone has the potential to unite Iraq and hold it together in the face of ISIS terrorism and Iranian meddling, it is Mr. Abadi. In a society where name and upbringing count for a lot, he comes from a respected Baghdad family and was raised in an upscale neighborhood. He studied at one of the capital’s best high schools, earned a degree from one of its top universities and later received a doctorate in engineering in Britain.
While Mr. Maliki spent his years in exile in Iran and Syria and earned degrees in Islamic studies and Arabic literature, Mr. Abadi, a fluent English speaker, worked his own way through his long and costly studies abroad. In meetings over the past decade, Mr. Abadi always impressed me and other American diplomats with his self-effacing humor, humility, willingness to listen and ability to compromise — extremely rare traits among Iraq’s political elite, and precisely the characteristics that are needed to help heal the wounds Iraqis sustained under Hussein and Mr. Maliki.
“We’ll give Abadi a real chance if for no other reason than because he’s a Baghdadi — not a thug from a village like almost everyone else that’s ruled us since ’58,” a shadowy financier of the Sunni insurgency told me this week.
Indeed, for the first time since 2003, Iraq’s top three leaders, the Shiite Mr. Abadi, the Kurdish president, Mr. Masum, and the Parliament’s Sunni speaker, Mr. Jubouri, have all emerged from Iraq’s Parliament, where they cooperated over the past decade to pass legislation and defuse numerous crises.
Still, the challenges facing them today are daunting. Decades of misrule have entrenched sectarianism and corruption and accelerated a brain drain precisely when the country is in desperate need of talent; they have devastated moderate forces and polarized Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities; and they have empowered hard-liners from all factions, some of whom openly embrace Iranian-backed Shiite militias and neo-Baathist Sunni elements allied with ISIS or Al Qaeda. Even Iraq’s secular, moderate, pro-American Kurds have recently proved desperate enough to openly embrace a designated terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, with which they once fought a bitter war. Whether Mr. Abadi and his partners in the political process will be able to defuse and eventually marginalize these heavily armed hard-liners from all sides will be the key to Iraq’s viability as a unitary state.
ISIS will also have to be defeated. The root cause of its rise was Sunni disenfranchisement and disillusionment. If the Sunnis turn on ISIS now, which they’re ready to do, then they risk being obliterated by Shiite militants within a year or two. It won’t be easy to repeat the “Awakening” of roughly 2006-10, when Sunni tribes in western and central Iraq turned against the Al Qaeda fighters who were the forerunners of ISIS.
Baghdad and Washington betrayed their promises to these tribal members in 2010, after the secular Sunni-led Iraqiya coalition won more seats than Mr. Maliki’s coalition, only to be deprived of an opportunity to form a government due to Mr. Maliki’s coercion of the judiciary.Although Iraqiya would have inevitably failed to form a cabinet in the face of Iranian objections, simply allowing it the chance would have respected the intent of the Iraqi Constitution, which America helped draft.
Mr. Maliki’s unjust victory and overt purges of Sunnis only compounded the problem. It will be much harder now to convince them that the same thing won’t happen again given that Iran has displaced the United States as the most influential actor in Iraq.
Sunnis can gain real influence in Iraq’s government only if Iran and its Shiite Islamist proxies allow them back to the table in Baghdad. And that would require overcoming deep fears and hatred. To Shiites, it is akin to bringing Hutu génocidaires into the Rwandan cabinet or appointing apartheid apologists as ministers in the South African government. Sunnis, in light of their suffering since 2003, are now demanding the formation of an autonomous region like Kurdistan, but Iran will almost certainly view that as a strategic threat.
Iraq’s viability as a state will also be determined by whom Mr. Abadi chooses to surround himself with in the coming hours, days and weeks. Having traveled across three continents with all of Iraq’s presidents and prime ministers since 2003, I’ve learned that there are two highly revealing windows into the minds of Iraqi leaders: their advisers and bodyguards.
If he continues Mr. Maliki’s tradition of staffing the prime minister’s office with corrupt, proudly sectarian, conspiracy-prone Iran sympathizers who loathe Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shiites, Iraq is doomed. If, however, Mr. Abadi chooses to surround himself with moderate and savvy technocrats from all ethnic and religious groups, his odds of success will grow exponentially.
Mr. Abadi’s choices about who to entrust with his physical safety will also be critical. His security detail will almost certainly be led by tribe members and blood relatives, a universal practice in Iraq. How they behave in the coming months and years will tell us a lot about the prime minister’s mind-set, values, leadership and tolerance for corruption. Mr. Maliki’s abuses of power were legendary — and catastrophic. He bypassed the chain of command to ensure all generals reported to him, just as Hussein did. He ordered military units via cellphone to attack political rivals and installed his own son to lead forces in purging foreigners from their valuable Green Zone properties.
Even if Mr. Abadi manages to exorcise the inner sectarian demons fueled no doubt by Hussein’s execution of two of his brothers, even if he recruits competent advisers and respectful bodyguards, even if he delegates some powers to state institutions and embraces a campaign of national reconciliation, the odds will still be stacked against him.
That’s because all Iraqis and their leaders are psychologically scarred. Iraqis face a simple but defining question: Do they want to live with one another?
Can Shiite Islamists who suffered mightily under Hussein stomach the thought of sitting in a cabinet meeting with neo-Baathist Sunnis? Can those Sunnis stand the concept of sharing power with a currently serving Shiite cabinet minister who was a general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and is a death-squad commander behind an ongoing campaign to ethnically cleanse Baghdad of Sunnis by taking power drills to their skulls? Can the Kurds, who suffered decades of oppression at the hands of both Shiite and Sunni Arabs, stomach the idea of remaining part of a dysfunctional country that shares neither their language nor their traditions? This is not a hypothetical scenario but precisely what members of Mr. Maliki’s cabinet were forced to consider for the past eight years. Thus far, the results speak for themselves.
As I’ve told numerous American ambassadors and generals, I believe the answer to all these questions will ultimately be “no.” To date, I’ve seen no indication that there is enough tolerance or willingness among Iraq’s leaders to forgive, forget and move on.
I desperately hope I’m wrong. I’ve visited Walter Reed hospital and Arlington National Cemetery many times. I’ve buried countless Iraqi friends and colleagues since 2003, including two members of Iraq’s Governing Council. I pray daily that Americans’ and Iraqis’ extraordinary sacrifices will eventually pave the way for something magnificent.
Iraq should be one of the wealthiest countries on earth, with its human capital, strategic location, vast oil and gas reserves and two major rivers in an otherwise barren region. It even has tremendous potential for ecological and religious tourism showcasing Kurdistan’s scenic mountains, Samarra’s historic spiral minaret and the Shiite shrines of the south.
But as human history has repeatedly demonstrated, no commodity is as valuable as visionary leadership. Overcoming the legacies of Hussein and Mr. Maliki will not be easy. But it is vital. This really is Iraq’s last chance.
Ali Khedery is the chairman and chief executive of Dragoman Partners. He served as special assistant to five American ambassadors in Iraq and as senior adviser to three heads of the Central Command from 2003-10.