Before Haider al-Abadi, a senior Dawa Party technocrat known for his collegial and consensual demeanor, catapulted to the prime minister’s office, there was a strong case to be made that the Iraq as we knew it was quickly coming apart at the seams. The Iraqi army (the same army that was built, trained, and maintained by the United States to a conservative tune of $25 billion over nine years) was in the middle of an existential crisis, having lost northern Iraq’s biggest city of Mosul in less than a week to a band of several thousand marauding jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Iraqi politics, as guided and influenced by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was more exclusionary and authoritarian than pluralist and democratic.
Indeed, by the end of June, roughly four divisions of the Iraqi army disintegrated in the face of ISIS. While always brutal towards Iraqi civilians and a recurring nuisance for the government in Baghdad, by the middle of 2014 ISIS had transformed into a full-fledged proto-state capable of utilizing a deep bench and self-financing to the tune of at least $1 million a day. The pressure rose to such an extent that the United States, once Maliki’s main beneficiary and supporter (Maliki was invited to the White House only nine months prior), decided to use the assets of the US Air Force to stall ISIS’ momentum.
We all know the story: despite his stubborn refusal to let go of the reigns, Maliki was finally pushed out and replaced by Abadi, a veteran lawmaker who was seen by Iraq’s various political factions, the country’s neighbors, and the Obama administration as the best choice for steering Iraq back in the right direction.
Since that fateful day in mid-August, Abadi has relished his role as the anti-Maliki—at least in Washington. Although the pair hails from the same, Shia-based Dawa Party, Abadi is taking an altogether different approach from his predecessor. Whereas Maliki was a more violent and paranoid version of Richard Nixon, Abadi over his first 100 days in office has projected an image similar to that of Gerald Ford: a man who recognizes the many faults of the previous government and a figure who grasps the need for healing at an incredibly difficult time in the country’s history.
So, what exactly has Abadi done in his first three months in office? The short answer is a lot. Indeed, Abadi has arguably done more for anti-corruption and reconciliation measures in Iraq over the past 100 days than Maliki did during his last four years in power. Senior officers in the army and police who became acclimated to collecting hefty paychecks every week, despite being incompetent in their jobs, have been relieved of duty and told to find a new line of work. On November 11, 2014, Abadi ordered 26 military commanders to shed their uniforms and vacate their posts. But more significant than the quantity of the officers relieved were the names on the chopping block: the Army Chief of Staff (Babakar Zebari), the commander of Baghdad Operations Command (Abed al-Amir al-Shammari), the Mid-Euphrates Operations Commander (Othman al-Ghanimi), the top military officer in the Anbar Operations Command (Rashid Fleih) and the commander of all Iraqi ground forces (Ali Ghaidan) were all told to resign. These names are not mid-level staff officers or battalion commanders, but rather central figures of the Iraqi army leadership during the Maliki era.
Firing a few dozen officers is one thing, but beginning a process of broad-based institutional reform is quite another. Abadi has managed to do both in a very short time span, although reformers will need to constantly guard against backsliding or slow-rolling over the long term. The most notable of these changes to date has been an internal investigation that uncovered an astounding 50,000 “ghost soldiers” on the army payroll—tens of thousands of soldiers who were getting government paychecks every month, but were not actually in the field. The revelation will be an incredibly important money-saver for the Iraqi government, which was expending hundreds of millions of dollars per year on troops who were killed, rendered ineffective, refusing to show up for work, or downright nonexistent.
Finally, Abadi has set his sights on Iraq’s notoriously brutal detention system, which has been blamed for serious human rights abuses, including torture, for years. Prisoners who were once languishing behind bars without formal charges pending and without any due process or access to a lawyer will now be placed within a national registry in an attempt to determine who exactly is in the detention system, what crimes they committed, and where they were arrested. And, in a major concession to the Sunni Arab community that has seen thousands, of young men detained by the security forces on terrorism charges, any detainee ordered released by a judge must be freed within a month.
Admittedly, it is tempting to get carried away with all of these decrees. If there is anything that we have learned about Iraq over the past eleven years, it’s that laws passed and signed are not necessarily laws implemented. Thanks in part to repeated backstabbing from the previous prime minister, Sunni tribal leaders will view any promises from the central government as short-term and subject to the whims of sectarian party politics. And, although Abadi has attempted to cast an independent, maverick-like streak during his first few months in power, his position and ability to govern are only as durable as his governing coalition. Even with good intentions, Abadi is still largely at the mercy of his political allies in the Shia bloc—the same bloc that contains senior parliamentarians who are often influenced by or wholly directed by Iran. As seen in the struggle of getting the national guard program through parliament, it only takes a single objection from his own party or a junior coalition partner to quash plans that would otherwise serve as an important component to the fight against the Islamic State and the extremism it represents..
Abadi has been busy since August, but in order for all of that work to pay off, he will need to straddle the fine line between providing concessions to a Sunni minority that desperately wants to be brought back into the system and a Shia majority who is consistently watching out for a diminution of its role as the powerbrokers of Iraqi politics.
Daniel R. DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geopolitical consulting firm, and a contributor to The National Interest magazine.