Iraq: Al-Abadi garners Iranian, US, Saudi Support: But can He Unite Iraq?

By Juan Cole

Middle Eastern regional powers joined the US in welcoming the appointment of Haydar al-Abadi as Iraq’s next Prime Minister, creating a dorm full of strange bedfellows.

The chairman of Iran’s national security council, Ali Shamkhani, congratulated al-Abadi and said that Iran approved of the legal process whereby President Fuad Masoum appointed the new PM. This entire line of reasoning was a slap in the face to outgoing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who argues that Masoum acted unconstitutionally in appointing anyone but Maliki and has said he will challenge the step in the supreme court. Shamkhani appeared to caution al-Maliki and others against opposing al-Abadi, calling on “all political blocs” to abide by “the rule of law” and to unite in the face of the threat posed by an “external enemy.” Some observers believe that al-Abadi was pressed on Masoum by Iran to begin with and is now Tehran’s candidate.

Saudi Arabian King Abdullah sent congratulatory messages both to President Masoum and to prime minister-designate al-Abadi, expressing the kingdom’s support for the new government. King Abdullah appears truly to have despised Nouri al-Maliki. In 2006, al-Maliki used his Islamic Call or Islamic Mission Party (al-Da`wa al-Islamiya) to mount a global campaign against “Wahhabism,” the severe branch of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, which has often been hostile to Shiite Muslims like al-Maliki. King Abdullah, however, appointed two Shiites to his advisory council and allowed municipal elections in Shiite cities like Qatif, which brought Shiite politicians onto the city council. Before the 2011 Arab Spring demos, in which Shiites in the Saudi Eastern Province joined, King Abdullah appeared to be slowly trying to improve the position of Saudi minorities. Since then, unfortunately, there has been a renewed crackdown. In any case, Abdullah was deeply offended by al-Maliki’s critiques of Wahhabism and the mounting of Shiite demonstrations outside Saudi embassies. I don’t believe al-Maliki was ever allowed to visit Riyadh, whereas the Iranian prime ministers and even hard line Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr have come on such diplomatic visits. So whether or not King Abdullah is as enthusiastic as he says for Iraq to flourish (the Saudis are a little afraid of a united Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait), it is plausible that he is truly delighted that al-Maliki is being replaced by someone more level-headed.

Likewise, the Turkish foreign ministry congratulated al-Abadi. Turkey’s fate is much bound up with Iraq’s since they are neighbors and both Kurdish nationalism and hard line political Islam pose challenges to both.

Getting Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all to agree on something is pretty difficult, so al-Abadi already has an achievement.

Al-Abadi has also garnered the support of the major Shiite parties, including Fadila (Virtue), the al-Ahrar (“Free Ones”) of hard line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISCI) of Ammar al-Hakim, which is close to Iran. He appears to have gained the support of about half of the Islamic Mission Party, which has 92 seats in parliament or so, and which al-Maliki theoretically heads. The party leaders, however, issued a statement on Tuesday that al-Maliki is their candidate, rejecting al-Abadi.

On the other hand, US Vice President Joe Biden appears to have elicited a promise from Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani to “work with” al-Abadi. Barzani has made it clear that he actually wants to secede from Iraq, so it is unclear how he will cooperate with Baghdad. Though, his pledge to hold a referendum on secession within 6 months was made before the Kurdistan paramilitary, the Peshmerga, found themselves unable to hold their front with the so-called Islamic State, an al-Qaeda offshoot. Barzani is now getting large amounts of US weapons and money, and the US air force is bombing IS positions near Kurdistan. The Peshmerga (“one who stands before death”) have been enabled to take back two border towns straddling the Arab and Kurdish frontier, Gwer (al-Kuwair) in Ninewa Province and Makhmour in Irbil Province. So, I think if Biden wants Barzani to compliment al-Abadi, he’ll swallow his pride and do so.

Unfortunately, in order to resolve the current crisis in Iraq, al-Abadi needs internal allies more than external lip support. He needs more than pro forma support from the Kurds in confronting IS in Diyala, Salahuddin and Ninawa provinces. And, he needs to detach some of the Sunni tribal leaders from the IS. The last time the Sunni rural notables allied with Baghdad against al-Qaeda, they were treated shoddily. Al-Maliki declined to continue their stipends or give very many of them government jobs. Since they had fought terrorists, they were often targeted for reprisals by the terrorists. And, al-Maliki even prosecuted some who had fought Baghdad before changing their minds and joining “Awakening Councils.” The difficulty is that when al-Abadi goes to the tribal chiefs, he may not get much of a hearing. He is after all from al-Maliki’s party.

Still, if Iranian, Turkish and Saudi support for al-Abadi is more than lip service, it could be important to al-Abadi’s success.

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8 Responses

  1. In a perfect world, this would be the beginning of an attempt at detente between the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia. The three could put equal pressure on their respective satellite interests to move towards some accord. If the U.S. uses its economic power to pressure Israel towards the peace table, Iran and the Saudis would have to exert pressure on the excesses of their side as well. Certainly, the Saudis would have to pressure the wealthy supporters of ISIS and al Qaeda in one way or another. If it means a few rich people end up taking unfortunate walks in the desert then so be it. However, none of the parties can totally have it their way.

    The reality is that there’s money to be made from peace — much more than there is to be made during wartime. Cooler heads can see that.

    • I think we are seeing the long-term insanity inherent in the events circa 1980-81, when the right-wing US, Saudi Arabia, & Pakistan seemed to declare war on leftism everywhere in the Islamic Middle East under cover of opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while bankrolling right-wing extremism. It’s like when the US government declared war on socialistic Black Panthers, while its military and CIA encouraged drug smugglers who spawned capitalist black gangsters in our cities. We sent a message: if you try to get out of the hell our empire created for you via socialism, we will murder you. Leaving only the opposite extreme as an endurable option.

      Thus today there are only right-wingers to fight amongst themselves from Egypt to Pakistan. But guess what? Right-wing solutions to the ills of global capitalism make no damn sense. Corrupt local tycoons bankrolling local Islamists doesn’t produce social justice. Medieval law doesn’t stop polarization of wealth. And worse, while we always feared a global proletariat united against us, it turns out the right-wing alternatives all hate each other murderously and never stop fighting. Moslem vs Judeo-Christian fundamentalists, Wahhabis vs the heirs of Khomeini, every ethnic group in Afghanistan. Because reactionary ideologies, like Sauron, don’t share power with others.

      This makes me suspect that the Saudis can’t really back away from extremism. Escalating it is the only way to maintain a shred of legitimacy, even though the Sauds know it puts everyone in greater danger including themselves personally. Under these conditions, why should Iran concede anything? And the US has worked in the past to promote Saudi paranoia about Iran. So we’re stuck with our agendas.

    • The US particularly but other countries as well are adept at being partners with each other on some matters while in serious opposition on others. It’s a characteristic of human nature to entertain views whose mutual exclusivity in one set of circumstances gives way at another, like rival counsel sparring in Court in the morning lunching amicably later.

  2. Wouldnt it be wonderful if the US had a true mutual security pact that it needed: one with Iran, Iraq(if there is true sunni participation) and Turkey. Many of the extremists would hopefully return to their studies.

  3. Given the depth of the hole and the histories of the hole diggers and their continuing involvement there is no cause for optimism. There is cause for hoping for some form of civilized behavior, but this may be another case of too little to late unless the main culprits conclude there is more to be gained from stability than chaos..

  4. Turkey has had a hot and cold relationship with Al-Maliki as well, who has ranted against Turkey for one issue or another, be it the oil deal with Kurdistan or when looking the other way on militants crossing the border. Other times there seemed to be great relations on different fronts, like trade. Overall, Turkey isn’t too upset in seeing Al-Maliki go.

    Al Maliki continuously blamed Saudi Arabia (as well as Qatar, particularly when they welcomed the top Sunni politician that Al Maliki went after. Al Maliki blamed Turkey too for hosting the former VP) for supporting insurgents cross the border, especially after suicide bombings before ISIL or Syria’s conflict. He implied their and the other Gulf Arab states’ support of Iraqi Sunnis were support towards extremism or sectarianism against the govt or himself, while noting their non-diplomatic ties in the early ages of the post-2003 Iraqi govt.

    Despite KSA’s pragmatic political concessions, ‘necessary evil’ meetings with Iran, like most other Sunni Arab Gulf states’ sentiments in that exercise, and meeting Muqtada al-Sadr (he’s not a hardliner on sectarianism and has been credited in trying to defuse it, going as so far as supporting Sunni protests against the Maliki govt and Assad), they still have practised anti-Shia sectarian prejudice in their foreign relations against a head of state like Pakistan’s ex-president Zardari, who wasn’t despised because he was NOT Nawaz Sharif, but because he had a Shia background, according to US correspondence in the last Wikileaks. As undiplomatic as Al-Maliki is, won’t find too many non-Islamist Muslims, Sunnis and particularly Shias, disputing the harm the fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology has caused.

  5. In my simplistic view when the royal courts (official and unofficial) herald al-Abadi as the potential uniter, he is given the green light to hold his head high and request the US to demolish ISIS, since ISIS can logically be considered a serious impediment to his uniting efforts, and the Iraqi military is supposedly not up to the job.

    Violence, military and otherwise is the coin of the realm (which includes us), so it’s only natural for al-Baradi to request some to fill his purse. Having advocated him for an impossible job (certainly no US politician could handle something like that), it’s only fair to help him, actually in the only way we know how.

    It’s going to be the same old story. Instead of the Pentagon giving the new war a cute name, I think deja vue is adequate.

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