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Haider al-Abadi: Unabashed and Unplugged

Iraq's prime minister says he's making strides with disaffected Sunnis in the fight against the Islamic State. He's also unapologetic about his gratitude for Iran's role in the war.

US-IRAQ-CONFLICT-DIPLOMACY-OBAMA-ABADI
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi takes a question from an Iraqi journalist as US President Barack Obama gestures for reporters to leave during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office on April 14, 2015 in Washington, DC. President Barack Obama met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the White House on Tuesday and hailed the progress he said the US-backed Iraqi forces were making against the Islamic State group. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Seeking to show that Iraq’s sectarian tensions are beginning to ease, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi offered a glimpse Wednesday into his recent meeting with Sunni fighters in hostile territory.

The Shiite prime minister is otherwise unabashed about his gratitude for Iran’s help in fighting the Islamic State — an issue that continues to seed mistrust for Baghdad among Iraq’s minority Sunnis. But in a shift, Abadi has made the liberation of one of Iraq’s strongest Sunni enclaves his top priority in the ongoing battle.

“I went to Habbaniyah. These are 1,500 people I don’t know. They are armed,” Abadi told a small group of reporters about his visit last week to meet with tribal fighters at an air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province.

“I walked between them. I felt safe,” Abadi said. “So I think that is how much the situation has changed in the country.”

Soft-spoken, frank, and willing to speak to Americans in English, Abadi strikes a sharp contrast to his predecessor, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down under pressure last year over his failure to contain sectarian tensions in Iraq. Maliki, also Shiite, often appeared hostile and defensive about his efforts to unite Iraq. He was widely accused of straining relations with Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds, who were sidelined from power despite making up, together, about 40 percent of the country’s population.

The Obama administration is banking on Abadi to cut through the sectarian-tinged political miasma that for years has surrounded Baghdad, as the only way to defeat the Islamic State. But in his candid remarks Wednesday — perhaps underscoring the urgency of the threat — Abadi sounded far more focused on the battlegrounds in the hinterlands.

He confirmed that the war’s next fronts will be in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, and also in the town of Baiji, in central Iraq, where a major oil refinery is located. From there, Abadi said, the campaign will seek to liberate the city of Mosul, where the Islamic State is headquartered in Iraq. Mosul is the country’s second-largest city, and the Pentagon for months had planned to launch a military assault there either this month or in May.

Abadi, however, said the Mosul campaign will not happen until after the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, which this year ends in mid-July. He said an estimated 5,000 Sunni tribesmen in Anbar have volunteered to fight, and they want more guns and advanced weapons to try to match the Islamic State’s hardware edge.

That is part of what Abadi now is asking Washington to supply. “Arms — we need a lot. If they can supply us with heavy weapons, with tanks, we need them badly,” Abadi said. But mostly, Abadi is depending on what he called “sustainable support” to ensure that U.S. airstrikes and training missions continue — even if it means working in tandem with Iran.

An estimated 3,600 foreign troops and military trainers are in Iraq, including about 2,200 American forces, Abadi said. That’s in contrast to about 110 trainers from Iran, which Abadi said sent help on the second day of the war with the Islamic State. He did not give a date, but the extremists overran parts of Anbar in January 2014, and seized Mosul last June.

“The assistance of Iran to Iraq is crucial — historically and at present,” Abadi said. “As you are well aware, Iran considers the threat by Daesh as a threat to its own national security.” He was referring to the Arabic name for the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the number of foreigners in the Islamic State’s ranks also appears to have increased, including many who, notably, speak Russian. “So Daesh has lost their support among Sunni communities in Iraq, or they are losing it quite fast,” Abadi said.

That optimism may be vastly overstated, however, and Abadi himself acknowledged he has a long road ahead in trying to soothe generations of anger among citizens of one of the Middle East’s most diverse countries.

“I’m not claiming that everything is rosy,” he said. “There are still grievances with every section of society.”

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

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