Iraq's Leader Finds Friends In Washington, But Faces Battles At Home

Apr 16, 2015
Originally published on April 16, 2015 7:40 pm

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi weighs the pros and cons of running such a fractured country, here's the upside: He can count on five separate military groups supporting his battle against the self-declared Islamic State.

The downside is that he has limited control of these groups, and of much of his country.

Abadi is in Washington this week, his first visit to the capital since the U.S. launched its bombing campaign last summer against the Islamic State, or ISIS. He's a striking contrast with his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, whose eight years in power were marked by regular friction with the U.S.

Abadi is a fluent English speaker, comfortable with policymakers in Washington, and he understands what Americans are looking to hear. But it's one thing to deliver engaging speeches in Washington and quite another to deliver Iraq from its current mess.

Abadi commands an army still struggling to prove itself as a capable fighting force. He's trying to get a handle on Shiite militias that have been effective fighters, but have been accused of abuses. Then there are the Kurdish forces who control the northeast of Iraq. And he must find a way to remain on working terms with both the Americans who are supplying air power and Iranian advisers serving on the ground.

In a speech Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Abadi criticized the highly visible role that Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani played in the recent fighting for the city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

Asked about this, Abadi said: "Certainly it's a bad idea. I mean, we don't accept it. We welcome the Iranian help and support for us. To be honest with you, it's a very sensitive issue. Iraqi sovereignty is very important to us."

Abadi stressed Iraq's sovereignty several times in his speech. Over the past decade, there has been periodic talk about whether Iraq would be better off split up into separate territories for the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Islamic State has now put the country's sprawling western desert beyond Abadi's reach.

But the Iraqi leader said the recent victory in Tikrit showed the Islamic State could be defeated.

"In many ways, the victory of Tikrit offers a case study for how the rest of Iraq can be liberated militarily," Abadi said.

But that battle was neither swift nor smooth. It took weeks to dislodge ISIS, which left behind many booby-trapped buildings and homes. The city remains largely empty, even though ISIS was forced out two weeks ago. Also, the Shiite militias looted, pillaged and carried out revenge attacks when they entered the city.

Abadi – who is a Shiite — still has a long way to go to persuade Sunnis that they can trust the Iraqi security forces. This Sunni support is seen as crucial for pushing ISIS out of western Iraq and Mosul, the second largest city, which is in the north.

The Iraqi leader said U.S. airstrikes were precise and effective. But he said that when Iraq provided information on a target, he felt it was taking the U.S. too long to respond.

"Bombing missions must be quicker," he said.

He said his only requests for military hardware involved weapons agreed upon previously, including F-16 fighter planes and armaments for new Iraqi divisions that are being trained.

While acknowledging his own position was difficult, Abadi also said he didn't envy the U.S. Asked why America should prioritize Iraq when so many Middle Eastern states are in chaos, he said: "That's the price of being a superpower."

Greg Myre is the international editor of Follow him @gregmyre1.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is in Washington, and he's providing a more engaging face for his country's leadership than we've seen in some time. He is a fluent English speaker, he seems comfortable in the limelight, and he's here asking for more U.S. help in getting control of his country. Prime Minister Abadi talked about the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State or ISIS at a Washington think tank today, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. NPR's Greg Myre was there. Hi, Greg.


SIEGEL: Tell us what kind of impression Prime Minister Abadi made.

MYRE: The first thing that's most striking is what a contrast he is with his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. There always seemed to be tension and friction with Maliki. The U.S. and Iraq seemed to be pulling in different directions. Abadi's very comfortable - very relaxed in this kind of setting, and he knows how to say the things that Americans want to hear.

He's grateful for the U.S. airstrikes, but wasn't making any big new demands. He knows he needs to unite the different groups - the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds. And he's also aware he needs to crack down on human rights abuses and violations by groups like Shiite militias. And somewhat surprising - he was also critical of Iran.

SIEGEL: He is a Shiite Muslim, and the community is close to Iran. What did he say about Iran?

MYRE: Iran has been playing a very prominent role in Iraq, and during the recent fighting in Tikrit, a big-name Iranian commander, Qasem Soleimani, was parading around getting his picture taken, and it - really showing what a big role he was playing there. So let's have a listen about what Abadi thought about that.


PRIME MINISTER HAIDER AL-ABADI: Certainly, it's a bad idea. I mean, we don't accept it. We welcome the Iranian help and support for us. To be honest with you, it's a very sensitive issue. Iraqi sovereignty is very important for us.

MYRE: He brought up sovereignty several times in his speech, and I think it really is something that strikes a nerve with Iraqis. They have the Islamic State trying to carve off part of the country in the west, many Kurds talking about sovereignty in the north, and then if you see an Iranian parading around there, that also, I think, strikes a nerve.

SIEGEL: Well, pro-government forces in Iraq including the Shiite militias pushed ISIS out of the city of Tikrit this month. That was with the help of U.S. airstrikes. It was their first significant victory. And this is from Abadi's speech today in which he talked about that battle.


ABADI: In many ways, the victory of Tikrit offers a case study for how the rest of Iraq can be liberated militarily.

SIEGEL: A case study, he said.

MYRE: Right, there's a lot of people that wouldn't agree, though, that it's a model that you want to follow every time. First of all - lot of tough fighting - took weeks to dislodge the Islamic State here. They left a lot of booby traps behind. It's still not a safe city. It's still largely empty. The residents are a little nervous about coming back now. And his biggest problem, I think, is that these Iranian-backed Shiite militias looted and pillaged and carried out some revenge killings. And this is the kind of thing that really is going to leave the Sunnis very, very nervous. The Iraqi military and the Shiite militias - if they cannot win the Sunnis over and convince them that they are their friends, then Abadi's facing a very tough task.

SIEGEL: So what does he want from the U.S.?

MYRE: Well, he wants stuff that's already been agreed upon, which is weapons for new divisions, training for F-16 pilots and these F-16s that would come. And he was asked why Iraq should be prioritized when there's such a mess in the Middle East? Why should the U.S. focus on Iraq? And he said, well, that's the price you pay for being a superpower.

SIEGEL: OK - NPR's Greg Myre who attended today's speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.