TSG IntelBrief: New Leaders Improve Iraq’s Prospects
August 26, 2014

New Leaders Improve Iraq’s Prospects

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The Obama Administration considers Iraq’s new leadership team as even more crucial to rolling back gains made by the terrorist organization calling itself The Islamic State (IS) in Iraq than US military action

• Iraq’s new leaders, particularly Prime Minister-designate Haydar al-Abadi, are moderates who believe in cooperation among Iraq’s Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish communities rather than “winner take all” politics

• Iran has cooperated with US efforts to forge a new leadership team in Iraq after concluding that the sectarian behavior of outgoing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was furthering instability on Iran’s borders

• US allies in Europe have provided humanitarian aid and some weapons to the Kurds’ peshmerga force, but show no inclination to join direct US military action against IS in Iraq.

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President Obama has stated that the key to defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq is the formation of an inclusive government that can win back the allegiance of many of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that have supported the IS offensive. The Administration began airstrikes against IS positions in early August in an effort to halt the group’s threat to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) capital of Irbil, and to ease the plight of the Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities expelled from their homes in northern Iraq. These immediate goals were mostly accomplished by US airstrikes, which paved the way for gains made by the peshmerga, joined by some Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) units. However, US Secretary of Defense Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey subsequently indicated that US military action alone would not defeat IS in the long term and will not constitute the core of the US effort against IS.

The US strategy gained momentum in July and August with the selection of new Iraqi leaders considered moderate and inclusive. The Administration had blamed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s pursuit of a Shi’a sectarian agenda for the IS capture of Mosul and the collapse of the ISF in northern Iraq in June. Al-Maliki’s policies had alienated Sunnis, causing them to join the IS offensive, and he had replaced many of the ISF’s competent, professional commanders with political loyalists. In the government formation process that followed Iraq’s April 30, 2014 national elections, US and allied officials made no secret of their desire to see al-Maliki replaced by another Shi’a leader who would build an inclusive government.

Administration pressure was decisive because Iraq’s leaders understood that more substantial US military help was contingent on choosing more inclusive leaders. In mid-July, the elected parliament chose a moderate Sunni Islamist, Salim al-Jaburi, as its speaker. The parliament subsequently selected as Iraq’s President a senior Kurdish figure, Fuad Masum, about 74 years old, who had participated in the drafting of the 2005 Iraqi constitution.

The most significant success came on August 11, when President Masoum tapped Haydar al-Abadi, a 62-year old member of the Islamic Da’wa Party (the same party as al-Maliki), to be prime minister-designate. The prime ministership is Iraq’s most powerful executive position. Al-Abadi has 30 days from the date of his appointment—until September 10—to  choose and achieve parliamentary confirmation for a cabinet. He appears to have ample support to do so, even if the cabinet formation process might be slowed by factional disputes and the effects of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian violence.

Al-Abadi’s profile is far different from that of al-Maliki. Unlike al-Maliki, al-Abadi was in exile in London during Saddam’s rule, not in Iran or Syria. He speaks fluent English. And, he is from a wealthy Baghdad family that has longstanding ties to all of Iraq’s major communities, and did not serve in the Da’wa Party’s underground militant wing. US officials say that cooperation between the peshmerga and the ISF in containing the IS offensive in northern Iraq has improved dramatically since al-Abadi was named prime minister-designate.

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Broadening Support for US Policy

The threat from IS, with its brutal assault on minorities in northern Iraq, has brought about uncommon alliances as a result of converging interests. Longtime US adversary Iran cooperated in the removal of al-Maliki, even though Tehran has always viewed al-Maliki as a loyal instrument in Iraq. As did Washington, Tehran calculated that he needed to be replaced if Iraq were to be stabilized and IS contained. When al-Maliki sought to rally Shi’a militias and ISF loyalists to oppose the appointment of al-Abadi, Tehran undercut al-Maliki’s effort by compelling the Shi’a militias—which Tehran supplies and advises—to abandon him. With al-Maliki bereft of support, he acquiesced to losing his office.

Tehran’s shift also acknowledged the enormous political clout of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, perhaps the most revered Shi’a cleric in the world. In his letters and Friday prayer sermons, al-Sistani had clearly indicated a preference for al-Maliki to be replaced. In addition, Iran apparently calculated that cooperating with US policy in Iraq might bring concessions in the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

US allies in Europe have backed the Obama Administration’s policies in Iraq, though declining to become involved in direct military action themselves. France and Germany have, as has the US, begun arming the peshmerga. France has historically sought to protect Christian populations in the Middle East, and Germany hosts a large Kurdish expatriate population. Britain, Norway, and other countries in Europe have been providing humanitarian aid to ease the crisis for the vulnerable Iraqi minorities.

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Outlook

Al-Abadi is likely to form an inclusive government by early September, and that development is likely to cause Sunni tribal leaders and other Sunnis to rethink their cooperation with IS. With US mentorship and greater support from anti-IS Sunnis, the ISF and the peshmerga will improve their battlefield collaboration. Still, IS will remain a significant force in the Mosul area and the cities along the Euphrates River, such as Fallujah. It is likely that Iraq’s Sunnis, as a price for turning against IS, will continue to demand increasing autonomy from Baghdad to reduce the sense of Shi’a political domination of Sunni-inhabited areas.

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