December 15, 2014 / 12:32 PM / 3 years ago

Iraq's new premier battles to unite a fractured nation

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Three months after he took office with a mission to unite his broken, warring country, Iraq’s new prime minister has swept away the divisive legacy of his predecessor with a burst of rapid and dramatic measures.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attends a news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, December 3, 2014. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

But Haider al-Abadi faces a huge challenge forging a common front against Islamic State fighters, rebuilding an ineffective army and reasserting a degree of central government authority across Iraq.

Time is short and the battle to contain the militants who control swathes of territory is draining the country’s finances. Millions of people have been displaced and sectarian anger is growing.

Abadi has responded with a series of steps to improve the Shi‘ite-led government’s standing, not just with Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arab tribes but also across borders with Gulf neighbors.

His successes include a deal last month with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region on oil exports and budget payments, which followed months of dispute.

He has dismissed dozens of top army and security officers appointed by former premier Nuri al-Maliki, announced a campaign against corruption in the military, ordered curbs on arrests without a judge’s authorization, and decreed the speeding up of the release of detainees when courts order them to be set free.

“His biggest achievement was his desire for change, to deal with the mistakes of the last eight years,” said former judge and minister Wael Abdulatif, referring to Maliki’s two terms in office.

After Maliki alienated Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds by promoting hardline Shi‘ite interests, Abadi has tried to win over Iraq’s Sunni tribes whose western and northern heartlands have emerged as the core of Islamic State power. He appointed a Sunni defense minister and has held talks with Sunni tribal leaders.

The moderate Shi‘ite Islamist has also tried to mend fences with Sunni Arab states across the Gulf, an effort which has not gone unnoticed in the region.

“What I heard and saw from the prime minister is frankly the difference between day and night (compared with) what we’ve known and what we’ve heard from the previous prime minister Maliki,” said United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahayan, shortly after visiting Baghdad last month.

Regional Sunni power Saudi Arabia is talking, once again, about reopening its embassy in Baghdad soon.

“DISMANTLING MALIKI‘S STATE”

Abadi shocked many Iraqis last month when he said an investigation had found that at least 50,000 “ghost soldiers” were on the army payroll, taking salaries without showing up for duty and paying off officers who let them stay at home.

Promising greater accountability and transparency, he has also said he will win parliamentary approval for the 2015 budget, unlike this year’s budget which was never endorsed due to acrimony between Maliki and political parties.

Like Maliki, 62-year-old Abadi is a veteran member of the Islamist Dawa Party. This was outlawed under Saddam Hussein and both men fled the country, returning only after Saddam was toppled in 2003.

But while Maliki spent his exile living between Damascus and Iran and working for the opposition under an assumed name, Abadi, a qualified engineer, set up business in Britain where he worked for more than 20 years.

He projects a pragmatic and business-like approach to governing, in contrast to the dogmatic and secretive style which critics saw in Maliki.

“He’s dismantled much of Maliki’s state,” said a senior Western diplomat in Baghdad, approvingly. “If you look at the achievements of this government, it delivers. But it must be given time.”

During his term in office, Islamic State forces have been pushed back from Jurf al-Sakhr south of Baghdad and two towns near the Iranian border, while the militants’ five-month siege of Iraq’s largest oil refinery has been lifted.

But none of the political or military gains is irreversible. The job of imposing central authority remains, and some believe his momentum will stall.

“He started off well and he’s got the right approach, but a more positive attitude is not sufficient to put Humpty Dumpty together again,” said Kurdish regional government spokesman Safeen Dizayee, noting that Abadi may face discontent not just from outside but also among his own constituents.

That was apparent soon after the Kurdish oil deal was announced when a delegation from the Shi‘ite city of Basra said their southern region, which produces by far the most of Iraq’s oil, should have some of the same autonomy enjoyed by Kurds.

So far Abadi’s overtures to Sunnis in the western province of Anbar, whose support is vital for any long-lasting drive against Islamic State, have been met with scepticism from tribal leaders who say they have received desperately little reinforcement from Baghdad.

Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy, said 2014 marked Abadi’s political honeymoon, and perhaps the peak of his limited powers.

Next year could be tougher. After victories against Islamic State in mixed sectarian regions, Abadi will face pressure to drive home the offensive in the group’s Sunni heartlands.

Continued reliance on Shi‘ite militias rather than the army, as well as dependence on U.S.-led air support, highlights the weakness of Abadi’s state.

“There is still a central government in Baghdad that is nominally in charge of the country as a whole,” Kamel said. “But in real terms the central government is less relevant in Kurdish areas, it is irrelevant in the Sunni heartland and it is also less relevant in the (Shi‘ite) south.”

Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, editing by Ned Parker; editing by David Stamp

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