- - Sunday, August 17, 2014

BAGHDAD — Few expected unassuming, moderate Shiite lawmaker Haider al-Abadi to take Iraq’s top political job when Nouri al-Maliki announced last week he was stepping down as prime minister, but his low-key style could be what the war-torn country needs.

Abadi’s designation was a surprise exactly as it was a surprise when Maliki was chosen eight years ago,” said Iraqi political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidae. “I think he will succeed because he’s got support from all the political parties, plus his moderate character will help him.”

Mr. al-Abadi — a veteran lawmaker with al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party — accepted the nomination Monday to form a government in the next 30 days as the battle rages on to regain swaths of territory from Islamic State fighters and their minority Sunni allies. Mr. al-Maliki had sparked a political crisis when he initially refused to step aside after two four-year terms, threatening to challenge Mr. al-Abadi’s nomination in court.

But Mr. al-Abadi, a former deputy speaker of parliament who has held several senior political posts, faces a seemingly impossible job if he is to unite Iraq’s deeply divided political factions and regain territories Sunni militants have captured in the north and the west.

“This is not a matter of days or months; it is a matter of years,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

“He has to rebuild the bridges of trust among the various Iraqi political classes. He has to establish not only a unity government, he has to also convince Sunni elements that he is genuine about reconciliation, and he also has to convince the Kurds to stay within the union,” Mr. Gerges added.

Mr. al-Abadi’s reputation as an open-minded consensus politician who has maintained good relations with Sunni and Kurdish colleagues in spite of rising sectarian tensions could help here, says Mr. al-Sumaidae.

But he may still struggle to distance himself from his predecessor’s polarizing and sectarian policies and create a unity government, despite his having spoken out against Mr. al-Maliki’s policies.

Abadi was against Maliki’s policy against Sunnis and had lots of arguments with him in this regard, but he never listened to him,” an Iraqi government aide told The Washington Times.

The former prime minister was heavily criticized for pursuing a wildly pro-Shiite line and alienating Sunni and Kurdish populations — a policy that ultimately left him struggling to stay in power for a third term and a policy with which Mr. al-Abadi is associated.

When Mr. al-Maliki took office in 2006, Mr. al-Abadi made it clear that he did not intend to give Kurds and Sunnis more than their fair share of power even though it would have helped create political unity.

“There are some groups insisting on having more than they deserve,” he told The Associated Press at the time. “This must not be done, and we are resisting any attempt to do it.”

Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein constitution recognizes the nation’s ethnic-religious divisions and requires the prime minister to be a Shiite, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and the president a Kurd. Each leader is to appoint deputies from the other two groups.

Mr. al-Abadi is a veteran of the Shiite political scene. Born in Baghdad in 1952, he joined the Shiite opposition Islamic Dawa Party when he was 15, according to a biography posted on his Facebook page.

His father was a prominent doctor who later became inspector general of the Iraq Ministry of Health, but the family soon came into conflict with the Baathists after they seized power in 1963. Mr. al-Abadi studied electrical engineering in Baghdad and then moved to the United Kingdom to study for a doctorate at University of Manchester.

While in the U.K., Mr. al-Abadi became a Dawa activist and spokesman, speaking out against Saddam’s regime and having his Iraqi passport revoked in 1983 as a result. His father died in exile in Britain, and the Baathists executed two of his brothers who had chosen to stay in Iraq.

When Mr. al-Abadi returned to Iraq in 2003, he became a key figure in the post-Saddam political landscape and was appointed communications minister in the Governing Council.

Despite his predominantly Shiite past, ordinary Iraqis hope Mr. al-Abadi is the man to overcome the divisions causing conflict in their country.

“We need the new premier to end sectarianism,” said Mohamad Ali, a shopkeeper in Baghdad. “The Islamic State is exploiting sectarianism to invade Iraq. Everything can be solved if he succeeds in ending the sense of marginalization.”

The new prime minister acknowledged the difficulties he faces, calling them “large and dangerous” but ones that can be “overcome with unity and cooperation,” and it seems he has already courted two critical allies in the U.S. and Iran with his rhetoric.

President Obama called the appointment “a promising step forward,” and Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said his country supports “the legal process for choosing the new Iraqi prime minister.”

Given the consensus among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — as well as Iran — in choosing Mr. al-Abadi, there is reason to be optimistic.

“This is by itself a huge feat for Iraq to find a consensus candidate,” said Mr. Gerges. “All in all, Adabi is the man for the right moment for Iraq. The question is whether he could deliver or not given the great challenges that Iraq is facing at the moment.”

Jennifer Collins and Luigi Serenelli, both in Berlin, contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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