WASHINGTON — Iraq’s president on Monday named Haider al-Abadi as the country’s new prime minister, an appointment that came amid speculation that the embattled incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, would cling to power even after his country had dissolved into chaos and the United States made it clear that it would not support him as leader anymore.
But who is Abadi? Born in Baghdad in 1952, Abadi was educated at the University of Baghdad and later received a doctorate from the University of Manchester in Britain. He lived in Britain for many years after his family was targeted by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Trained as an electrical engineer, he entered politics after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He became minister of communications in the Iraqi Governing Council in September 2003, then was a key adviser to Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq’s first post-invasion elected government. Just weeks ago, he was elected deputy speaker of parliament, and he has been considered a contender for prime minister in the last two elections.
The bigger question, however, is whether Abadi will be able to overcome the challenges more successfully than Maliki. Like Maliki, he’s a Shiite Muslim and is also a part of Maliki’s State of Law coalition. One of the chief criticisms of Maliki was that he entrenched Iraq’s sectarian politics, filling the government with Shiite politicians and limiting Sunni and Kurdish power.
Earlier this summer, Abadi gave a striking interview with the Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan in which he discussed the possibility of Iranian intervention in the fight against the Islamic State, the Sunni extremist group that has taken over vast swaths of Iraq.
‘‘We are waiting for the Americans to give us support,’’ he said in the June interview. ‘‘If US air strikes [happen], we don’t need Iranian air strikes. If they don’t, then we may need Iranian strikes.’’ Abadi has also had differences with Iraq’s Kurdish community at points: Last year he warned that a dispute over Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil exports could lead to the ‘‘disintegration’’ of the country, and he was also criticized by Kurdish politicians during the negotiations over the 2013 budget.
However, Abadi does seem to be aware that the Iraqi government and security forces have made serious mistakes in the current conflict. He told Hasan that the Iraqi government needs to listen to stories of the ‘‘excesses’’ of the security forces to decide how to respond. And he was clear that Iraq needed to avoid being dragged into the type of war the Islamic State clearly desires.
‘‘We have to be careful not to become involved in a sectarian war,’’ he told Hasan. ‘‘Shias are not against Sunnis and Sunnis are not against Shias.’’
President Fouad Massoum, a Kurd, seemed confident Monday that Abadi could lead the country. ‘‘Now the Iraqi people are in your hands,’’ he said as he shook Abadi’s hand. Now Iraq waits to see if Maliki will acquiesce.