Can Haider al-Abadi Bridge Iraq’s Sectarian Divide?

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during an interview in Baghdad, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during an interview in Baghdad, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

October 21, 2014

It’s been a little over six weeks since Haider al-Abadi replaced the embattled Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister.

Abadi inherited a country torn apart by sectarian violence. Under Maliki, Iraq’s Sunni population faced discrimination, arbitrary arrests and violent crackdowns, as government forces raided their protest sites and targeted their politicians.

President Barack Obama gave Iraq’s new leader a ringing endorsement when the two first met in September, praising Abadi as “the right person” to lead a country under siege by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Abadi had “reached out systematically to all the peoples of Iraq,” he noted.

Since taking office, Abadi has attempted to address some of the Sunnis’ grievances. However, the few changes he has made to date may be more style than substance, according to former U.S. government officials, human rights researchers and analysts.

“He’s held a wide range of consultations. Sunnis, of course, are in the government,” Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told FRONTLINE. “So far, so good, but he has an awfully long way to go.”

Last week, lawmakers approved several of Abadi’s Cabinet nominees, including a Shia politician as interior minister, a Kurdish politician as finance minister, and a Sunni, who had formerly served in Saddam’s army, as defense minister.

Abadi called a halt to government shelling in civilian areas in mid-September, “because we do not want to see more innocent victims falling in the places and provinces controlled by [ISIS].” The practice, which had been criticized by human rights groups, had angered the Sunni community.

A day after the announcement, however, hospital officials in the Sunni city of Fallujah said their facility had been hit by government shelling.

Abadi also announced an overhaul of Iraq’s security forces, which had been implicated in human rights abuses. In late September, he dismissed two senior generals with close ties to Maliki. As part of the overhaul, Abadi stressed both rebuilding the Iraqi army and developing a national guard that would incorporate local forces — including both Sunni tribal fighters and Shia militias.

By mid-October, however, the national guard plan seemed to fall apart as Iraqis from all sects feared the plan would further divide the country. “The idea of the national guard is far away from being implemented because of the current security situation,” Ghassan al-Husseini, an adviser for Abadi, told The Wall Street Journal. “It is a time bomb if it gets misused.”

Abadi’s biggest problem, however, is the continued operation of Shia militias, according to experts who spoke to FRONTLINE.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused Shia militias of kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians, especially young men. An Iraqi government official told Amnesty that Sunni men who live near areas controlled by ISIS are killed because they are suspected of being terrorists. In addition, “some militiamen target Sunnis in blind revenge for the crimes committed by Sunni terrorist groups.”

These Shia militias, and their political counterparts, are entrenched in the current Iraqi political system, according to Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland.

For example, Mohammed Ghabban, the Shi’ite politician confirmed as interior minister last week, is expected to serve as little more than a figurehead, according to experts. The real power is likely to reside with the head of the Hadi al-Ameri, who heads the Badr party and its militia and is suspected of running Shia death squads at the height of sectarian violence in ’06 and ’07.

“The groups themselves have infiltrated the central government. They control the security apparatuses,” Smyth said. “It’s not a logical thing to say that a group that’s completely infiltrated it, cooperates with it, operates with it, and essentially has been given independence for quite some time would be willing to just be folded under a new leadership apparatus.”

Crocker, the former ambassador, suggests that Iraq’s unity government — and by extension, the coalition fight against ISIS — is “in deep trouble” if Abadi is unable to rein in the Shia militias. “Sunnis are not going to join Iraqi national security forces if those forces are effectively allied with a mortal enemy to the Sunnis,” he said. “They’re just not going to do it.”

Erin Evers, who has been tracking abuses in Iraq for Human Rights Watch, told FRONTLINE that government officials in southern Iraq she’s spoken to have not denied working with the Shia militias. “The militias we’ve spoken to here say they’re the ones training the volunteers who are going to fight [ISIS],” Evers said.

Evers also described an increasing sectarian divide on the ground. “I’ve heard from a lot of Sunnis, especially [internally displaced Sunnis], who are too afraid to even leave their house, because whenever they get stopped at a checkpoint and the security officer sees they’re from Anbar then anything can happen to them,” Evers told FRONTLINE.

“They told me that they have friends who have just disappeared, who have just been randomly arrested,” she said. “Sunnis are kind of terrified; they’re stuck between abusive security forces and militias on the one hand, and obviously extremely abusive ISIS on the other.”

“Your average, politically middle-of-the-road Sunni is paying the highest price right now in this war,” Evers said.

Crocker, who served as ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, was in Baghdad when the United States convinced Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq, with the help of cash payments, to turn their guns against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS.

“If I were giving advice to Abadi,” Crocker said, “it would be to understand how crucial this is to forming a truly unified effort that brings the Sunnis in against ISIS, and in preventing a recurrence of the awful sectarian splits that characterized the latter years of Maliki’s rule.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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