Introducing Iraq's New Appointee For Prime Minister

The era of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be coming to an end after eight turbulent years. Haider al-Abadi, the man set to replace him, is not a previously well-known figure. NPR's Alice Fordham has interviewed him, and she tells Melissa Block more about him.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Iraq, the era of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be coming to an end after eight turbulent years. As we've been reporting, Iraq's president has appointed a new prime minister to form a government. He is Haider al-Abadi. Not previously a well-known figure, but now Abadi offers hope to some as a new face during Iraq's on-going crisis. NPR's Alice Fordham has spent a lot of time in Iraq this year and she interviewed Abadi when she was in Baghdad in June. She joins us now to talk more about him. Alice, first thing to mention is that Haider al-Abadi is a member of the same political party as Nouri al-Maliki - the Dawa party.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Absolutely right. And background-wise you might call him a technocrat. He actually trained in engineering in the UK. He helped design elevators. He lived there under exile from Saddam Hussein, who persecuted Shiite Islamist politicians. And he was a Dawa spokesman in exile. He speaks perfect English.

BLOCK: And when you interviewed him in June, did you get a sense that there's something in his background that would make him the kind of leader who can unite Iraqis and in particular unite them against the Islamic State?

FORDHAM: When I met him, he certainly seemed very aware of the importance of that and of the international pressure for unification - for unity among Iraqi politicians to happen. I'll play you something he said about the importance of unity, which is of course what many people, including the U.S., have been urging in Iraq.

PRIME MINISTER ELECT HAIDER AL-ABADI: Our country's under threat and regardless of whose fault it is, we are now all under threat. This is not internal politics. This is terrorism against the state -against normal people. So we have to face up to it.

FORDHAM: And this is the huge problem in Iraq now, of course - the ethnosectarian divisions between Shiite and Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds. Abadi has never held a position where he's controlled security forces, nor has he spoken out against the growing Sunni protest movement and insurgency. This could work in his favor because so many people see reconciliation with the Sunni minority as just crucial in turning the tide against Sunni militants. Although we do have to remember that a key part of his support comes from hard-core Shiite parties, which could tie his hands.

BLOCK: And Alice, in terms of the other factions and sectarian differences within Iraq, what did Abadi have to say about how he might handle that?

FORDHAM: Right. Well, I think he could take quite a tough line in some ways. I'll play you something that's maybe interesting. There's been a lot of concern that the Iraqi authorities are fighting the Islamic State militants with ragtag Shiite sectarian militias. And he's quite critical of that.

AL-ABADI: Don't forget we've fought against these militias before. And we don't want these militias to come back.

BLOCK: Alice, the United States has talked about more military assistance to Iraq but being conditional on a more inclusive government formed in Baghdad. And that's why they were demanding Maliki had to go. Is the prime minister designate, Mr. al-Abadi, the kind of person that the Americans think they can work with?

FORDHAM: He's had a strong relationship with the Americans for a long time. And I had to read through the WikiLeak to diplomatic cables that mention him. There's many approving references to his fiscal policy, to his concern about (unintelligible) militias. He's met them a lot. I mentioned he speaks fluent English. I think the Americans trust him.

BLOCK: But at the same time as we mentioned, he is from the same party as Nouri al-Maliki. He's a Shiite Islamist - doesn't sound all that different from Maliki. So if Maliki has been the problem, are there people who say Iraq needs more of a change?

FORDHAM: Yeah, Maliki's position is greatly weakened, but he is still challenging this. But in a way, it's necessary for any new leader to not be so different. There's a lot of Maliki loyalists in senior civil and military positions. Hundreds of thousands of people voted for Maliki. There's a strong argument for those wanting a new leader for him to be as like Maliki as possible to reassure these people and make it less likely that Maliki could rally support for a power grab.

BLOCK: NPR Middle East correspondent Alice Fordham. Alice, thanks very much.

FORDHAM: Thank you.

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