Iraq's Leader Finds Friends In Washington, But Faces Battles At Home : Parallels Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has a much better relationship with the U.S. than his predecessor. But he's still struggling to entrench his position in Iraq and defeat the Islamic State.
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Iraq's Leader Finds Friends In Washington, But Faces Battles At Home

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

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

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

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