The Cable

Iraqi Ambassador Offers Window Into New Prime Minister’s Worldview

The Iraqi government is poised for a significant overhaul following this month’s nomination of Haider al-Abadi as the country’s next prime minister. But at least one senior official won’t have to worry about cleaning out his desk: Iraqi ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily. "I anticipate that I will stay here," Faily told Foreign ...

Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images

The Iraqi government is poised for a significant overhaul following this month’s nomination of Haider al-Abadi as the country’s next prime minister. But at least one senior official won’t have to worry about cleaning out his desk: Iraqi ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily.

"I anticipate that I will stay here," Faily told Foreign Policy. "I know the prime minister-designate extremely well."

Indeed, Faily and Abadi have been close confidants since their days of academic and private-sector work in England in the 1980s. While Abadi earned a doctorate in engineering at the University of Manchester in 1980, Faily completed his degree in mathematics and computer science at Manchester Metropolitan University a few years later. On a weekly basis, the two men collaborated on student activism projects and demonstrations rooted in their opposition to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. While immersing themselves in the Shiite Dawa Party, Abadi led a company that serviced elevators for the building that housed the BBC World Service; and Faily worked for multiple IT companies.

It is Abadi’s connection to the West that has fueled hope that he might govern in a more inclusive manner than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose insular, power-hungry style alienated Iraq’s Sunnis and helped pave the way for the Islamic State’s takeover of large swaths of the country. But much remains unknown about Abadi’s plans for Iraq, and many doubt that a lifelong Islamist of his profile can save the bitterly divided country.

In comparing the two leaders, Faily said Abadi’s rise brings an opportunity for better relations with Washington. "He speaks English. He doesn’t need a translator. He can tune into the D.C. frequency quite easily," he said.

By contrast, Maliki spent many of his formative years in Iran and Syria. "Prime Minister Maliki hardly had been to the West," noted Faily. "He was taught in a region where anti-imperialism is the normal doctrine. In that sense, they are two different breeds."

But those hoping for a dramatically different chief executive in Baghdad will likely be disappointed. Faily emphasized that the two Dawa Party members share a broadly similar worldview and cautioned against those depicting the political transition in stark terms. "He’s also an Islamist by background. He will not have that much of a different vision than Maliki," said Faily.

Born to a prominent doctor in Baghdad in 1952, Abadi joined the Islamic Dawa Party at age 15. In the 1970s, the Dawa Party staged an armed insurgency after the Baathist Party came to power. Two of his brothers, also Dawa Party members, were killed by the Baath regime, and another was imprisoned for 10 years. In the late 1970s, Abadi moved to Britain and later became an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein.

Although his time in Britain introduced him to the Western way of life, it also exposed him to policies he vehemently disagreed with, such as London and Washington’s support of Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War. "He and I and others had difficulties with the British system because they were with Saddam at the time," Faily said. "People talk about justice and fairness, but at the end of the day, they’re supporting him in a fight where he was the aggressor. So how would you expect him to think that these were people with ideals rather than opportunists?"

Abadi now finds himself in a high-stakes effort to keep Iraq in one piece.

He must build a power-sharing government that diminishes sectarian tensions and fends off Islamic State militants, the greatest threat to the country’s security since the fall of Saddam in 2003. According to the White House and State Department, forging strong partnerships with Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds is key, but the going hasn’t been easy.

On Monday, Aug. 25, Abadi said the new government was forming with a "clear vision," but the remarks coincided with a spate of fresh car bombings underscoring the deep divisions in the country.

"The talks to form the government were positive and constructive. I hope in the next two coming days to agree on a clear vision of a unified program for the government," Abadi told reporters at a news conference in Baghdad. After the address, a suicide bomber detonated his vest inside a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, killing at least nine people and wounding 21. On Monday, bombings in the Shiite holy city of Karbala killed four and injured 17. On Saturday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for three car bombings in Kirkuk and one in Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish north.

Besides divvying up cabinet positions among Iraq’s various sects, experts say Abadi must repair relations with Sunni tribes supporting the Islamic State and tweak the constitution to limit executive power. "Iraq does, in my view, require a very different model of governance," said Charles Dunne, Middle East director at Freedom House, a Washington think tank.

But few are convinced that Abadi will take up the West’s recommendations just because he knows English or has lived in Britain. "Bashar al-Assad was an ophthalmologist in Britain, so we can’t necessarily read too much into that," Dunne said.

Others are slightly more optimistic. "Abadi might not differ much from Maliki in that they both are from the same party, but the expectation is that Abadi would be more inclusive than Maliki in making sure all forces, particularly the Sunnis, feel part of the decision-making process," said Marwan Muasher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "With ISIS controlling a good chunk of Iraq’s territory, and the Kurds threatening to go their separate way, Abadi can go a long way by being more inclusive; and so far many of the Sunni forces [have] indicated their willingness to cooperate so long as he shows inclusiveness."

To some extent, the ball is in the Sunnis’ court, said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The Shiites did a really big thing in forcing Maliki out," he said. "Now the question is, what are the Sunnis going to be willing to accept to turn against the Islamic State and fight them?"

As for whether Abadi has the political skill to win over skeptical Sunni leaders, Pollack said it’s impossible to know. "Too many times, Americans get themselves overexcited about a new ‘great white hope,’ but it rarely pans out," he said. "If you were a betting man, you’d say it’s unlikely that this is going to be fixed soon."

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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