Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi might have the toughest job in the Middle East. That’s what makes his success all the more surprising: Over the past year, he has driven the Islamic State out of Iraq’s cities, launched plans to reform the country’s massive and corrupt public sector, and mapped out a foreign policy aimed at preventing Iraq from being used as a battleground for regional powers. Abadi has even united disparate parts of the country’s religious and ethnic communities behind his agenda — and even as his political rivals scheme to derail his plans, his efforts are already starting to bear fruit.
Abadi’s most important victory in 2017 was the liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in July. That feat was accomplished as much through his diplomatic prowess as by military force. Abadi played a central role in persuading an unlikely alliance of Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Iran-backed Shiite militias — all supported by U.S. airstrikes — to temporarily set aside their differences and fight the terrorist group. “Iraq today is more united than it was before,” he said from the center of liberated Mosul on July 11, “and the victory achieved today is one over brutality and terrorism.”
Abadi’s bid to keep Iraq united has required him to combat more than just jihadis. In October, after the Kurds held an independence referendum, he greenlit a successful operation to retake the disputed oil-rich region of Kirkuk from the Peshmerga. At the same time, he forestalled abuses by Iran-backed militias by ordering their withdrawal from the area. And he extended an olive branch to Kurdish citizens, saying on Oct. 17, in response to the Kurdish flight from the newly controlled areas, “Any assault on Kurds is an assault on us.”
These moves exemplify Abadi’s governing philosophy — and it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary his approach is for Iraq. The country has suffered through successive leaders who tried to centralize as much power as possible in their own hands. Since taking office in 2014, Abadi, by contrast, has built bridges among the country’s political rivals and simultaneously nurtured ties with a diverse array of regional powers. Doing so, he argues, is the only way that Iraq can hope to survive in its violent neighborhood and overcome the daunting economic challenges it faces.
“[Abadi] has worked to ensure that his country is not a playground for wider conflicts,” says Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House. “He has attempted to move away from sole dependence on Tehran by inviting support from Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and elsewhere to create a balancing act.”
Whether Abadi will be able to deliver on his ambitious agenda remains to be seen. Iraqi politics remains a snake pit, filled with politicians and militia leaders who would love to see him fail. The defeat of the Islamic State, paradoxically, may make his job only more difficult: The United States and Iran temporarily put aside their rivalry to combat the jihadi group, but now the Iraqi prime minister must stop them from renewing their struggle to dominate his country.
As he put it in October, Abadi has a simple message for both Washington and Tehran: “We welcome your support, we would like to work with you, both of you, but please don’t bring your trouble inside Iraq.”
Meanwhile, his domestic reforms are still in their early stages and could be sabotaged by the country’s entrenched elite, which has long looted the state. That’s why the prime minister is already gearing up for his re-election campaign in the spring of 2018. In order to change the rules of Iraq’s political game for good, he’ll need to have the Iraqi people squarely on his side.
David Kenner is Middle East editor at Foreign Policy.
Abadi ran a company that serviced the elevators at the BBC offices in the 1980s.