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For Obama and Iraq’s Al Abadi, the beginning of a complicated relationship

OWoN: So far, so good, but don't start counting chickens yet.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 14, 2015

For Obama and Iraq’s Al Abadi, the beginning of a complicated relationship

‘Al Abadi is turning out to be the leader we could not have imagined’, says US official

Gulf News
By Greg Jaff
15 April 2015

Washington: President Barack Obama hailed Iraq’s prime minister on Tuesday as the kind of leader who could finally unite a fractious nation, and help America leave, after 11 years of war.

“What is clear is that we will be successful,” Obama said during his first White House meeting with Haider Al Abadi. “And part of that success is Prime Minister Al Abadi’s commitment to an inclusive government.”

Al Abadi, sitting across from Obama in the Oval Office, occupied virtually the same spot that his predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki, filled four years earlier. Back then, Obama hailed Al Maliki for leading “Iraq’s most inclusive government yet.”

But it didn’t take long for that relationship to sour. By last fall, senior Obama administration officials were blaming Al Maliki’s divisive, corrupt and sectarian rule for giving rise to Daesh in Iraq.

US presidents, generals and diplomats have spent much of the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan searching — sometimes desperately — for strong, democratic leaders who could forge stability or broker peace in countries battered by years of repression and war. For Obama, who is intent on ending America’s wars before leaving office, the pressure to find the right partners has been especially intense.

Today he’s starting fresh with new leaders in both countries, where a strikingly similar dynamic prevails. In Afghanistan, President Ashraf Gani, a former World Bank executive who studied at Columbia University, took over last year from Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with the Obama administration had become toxic. “This visit is an opportunity to begin a new chapter between our two nations,” Obama said last month when he met with Gani in the White House.

In Iraq, the White House has pinned its hopes on Al Abadi, who spent more than 20 years studying and working in London. Since taking office last August, senior White House officials said, Al Abadi, a Shiite, has managed to broker compromises with Sunnis and Kurds that would have been unthinkable under his predecessor. He cut a deal with the Kurds to share oil revenue, reestablished relationships with Sunni Arab neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, and has shaken up the leadership of the Iraqi army, which collapsed under pressure from Daesh fighters last summer.

Obama on Tuesday said the United States would deliver $200 million (Dh735 million) in humanitarian aid to help Iraqis displaced by war. Al Abadi, who was seeking financial assistance and weapons to battle Daesh, thanked the president for his help. “Iraq has managed ... to liberate a large part of its territory with support from the coalition but especially from the United States,” he said. American assistance, he added, “has had the greatest impact.”

The renewed hopes and happy start reflect a pattern in these notoriously fraught relationships, in which America’s impatience to end wars collides with messy politics on the ground. “Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem” described President John F. Kennedy’s strategy in Vietnam, until the CIA backed a coup that led to Diem’s death.

“The remarkable thing is to find a case where the relationship went smoothly,” said Phil Zelikow, a historian at the University of Virginia and counsellor to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. During his time in the George W. Bush administration, Zelikow said, he looked for examples of such comity. The only example he could find was the Philippines in the 1950s.

Some critics say the heavy focus on and high expectations for the top leader blind US policymakers to the broader problems in broken societies. In Iraq, Al Abadi inherited a weak and corrupt government that exists mainly to dole out the country’s oil revenue via patronage networks. His army and police forces are often outgunned by powerful Shiite militias, some of which are backed by Iran. He has struggled to find credible negotiating partners in Iraq’s fractured Sunni minority, which has backed Daesh.

“Al Abadi may have a better personality than Al Maliki, and he may have the will,” said Emma Sky, a former political adviser to the top US general in Iraq and the author of The Unraveling. “But he’s subject to the same constraints. He needs to survive, just like Al Maliki did before him.”

When Obama entered the White House in 2009, he said he would adopt a new relationship with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush had conducted bi-weekly teleconferences with both Karzai and Al Maliki, saying his regular coaching and mentoring were critical to their success. Obama scaled the calls back dramatically, reasoning his words would carry greater weight if he weren’t talking to the Afghan and Iraqi leaders so often.

At the time, Al Maliki had surprised American officials by ordering his army to launch attacks on the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that had inflicted heavy losses on US troops. In 2010, the Obama administration helped Al Maliki hold onto his job amid a post-election power struggle. “Keeping Al Maliki seemed the easiest thing,” Sky said. “It required the least effort.”

The Daesh’s blitzkrieg through Iraq last summer led to Al Maliki being pushed from power. Al Abadi, an unknown compromise candidate, was elevated. Only a few weeks ago, doubts were growing in Washington about whether he was strong enough to pull Iraq back from the brink. One moment in Tikrit seemed to crystallise his weakness: Iranian-backed militias launched a unilateral attack against Daesh rebels, stoking anxiety that the prime minister lacked the political muscle to curb the renegade militia’s rise. The US military was told that its help in freeing Tikrit was neither necessary nor welcome.

But when the militia attack bogged down amid heavy casualties, US officials said, Al Abadi took control, asking for help from US warplanes and ordering government forces to take back the town.

“Prime Minister Al Abadi stepped up,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a speech last week. “He courageously stepped in, making it absolutely clear that the Iraqi government — him, as commander in chief — was in charge of the operation.”

Some White House officials are even more effusive in their praise for the Iraqi premier.

“I think Al Abadi is turning out to be the leader we could not have imagined,” said a senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a foreign leader. “He’s so far advanced from Al Maliki as to be incomparable.”

The success, however, has come with a downside: increasingly problematic expectations from Washington. US commanders suggested that they had conditioned American support for the attack on the Shiite militias not being involved.

“I will not, and I hope we never, coordinate or cooperate with the Shia forces,” said Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command. Some of the paramilitary groups had close ties to Iran. Others consisted of local fighters who heeded calls to defend their country.

To some in Baghdad, it appeared as though Al Abadi had sided with the US military over Iran and his own supporters, who were fighting and dying to save Tikrit.

Those tensions, however, weren’t apparent Tuesday in the Oval Office, where Al Abadi praised America’s sacrifices for the sake of Iraq. “The blood of its sons and daughters is mixed also with the blood of the Iraqis,” he said. “I can assure you that these sacrifices will not go to waste.”

More than 11,265km away, Iraqi troops were on the move against Daesh fighters. US weapons were flowing faster. A tense, complicated relationship was still in its honeymoon phase.



  1. This seems promising for the rebuilding of Iraq. I wish them the best. Maybe O's desire to end war will be good for America moving forward.

  2. Declassified CIA Document Reveals Iraq War Had No Justification

    The justification for going to war in Iraq thirteen years ago, was based on a 93-page classified document that allegedly contained “specific information” on former Iraqi leader President Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs he was apparently running.

    Now that document has been declassified and it reveals that there was virtually zero justification for the war. The document reveals that there was “no operational tie between Saddam and al Qaeda” and no WMD programs.

    (Here's a bona fide reason that the relationship is "complicated" at best...

  3. What of the million dead and Trillions of damage ? Justice is where?


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