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James Denselow

Abadi: The leader who follows

Iraq's Abadi is reportedly known as the 'Yes-No' man because of his indecisiveness [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 October, 2015

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Comment: Running Iraq is not an enviable job, but Abadi's flexibility allows him to balance key domestic, regional and global power players, writes James Denselow.

Who'd be in charge of Iraq, a country where state institutions are barely functioning and continued civil conflict rages with an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 active IS fighters in the country?

Electricity supplies remain strained, corruption is so bad that protests are frequently and violently put down, and a breakdown in the sewage infrastructure recently saw an outbreak of cholera.

Senior US officials, nominally allies, are now publically questioning whether the country can survive as a functioning entity.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, the man riding the tiger, is still managing to steer the somewhat listing ship amid choppy waters, demonstrating a new and far more pragmatic leadership than his "strongmen" predecessors.

Despite the inherent flaws in the state he presides over, Abadi is still able to juggle competing interests to make progress. He is playing Moscow off Washington cleverly and his apparent indecision - he is reportedly known as Mr "No-Yes" - is actually of benefit within Iraq's current body politic.

     A more conventional 'strong leader' would be less able to bend - and more likely to snap - in the face of such challenges

A more conventional "strong leader" would be less able to bend - and more likely to snap - in the face of such challenges.

So, in essence, it can be argued that what Iraq needs right now is the weak leadership that Abadi displays.

Take, for example, last week's Peshmerga and US Special Forces raid in Iraq that freed dozens of captives held by IS, and which saw the first US soldier die so far in Washington's battle against the group.

Abadi made no pretence to being involved. One of his senior generals, Tahsin Ibrahim Sadiq, told Reuters - "we just heard this from the media, we didn't know about it".

US officials contradicted this and confirmed that they did inform the Iraqi government in advance - but it is interesting that Abadi is willing to blatantly contradict Washington.

Reuters recently finished an investigatory piece that concluded Abadi had so far failed to live up to his promises to restore a fragmented state, while he has remained subservient to powerful militias. Recent religious festivals have increasingly been used as a show of force by groups operating below the level of the state, and many of the recent battlefield successes against IS have been achieved by those fighting under a flag that is not that of the Iraqi state.

Recapturing Ramadi will be a huge feather in Abadi's cap - much like losing Mosul was a nail in the coffin of Maliki's premiership.

To do this, the prime minister must succeed in balancing the Americans and the Russians - something that he appears to be doing successfully to date. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, has warned the Iraqis that Russian airstrikes would "hinder continued US military support to Iraq".

Yet in showing a willingness to receive support from Moscow in the fight against IS, Abadi has managed to leverage more US commitment in the form of intelligence, logistics and critically, bombing support - with a uptick in strikes since Putin's offer to Baghdad emerged.

According to Foreign Policy, since the October 22, the US-led coalition bombing Islamic State group positions in Iraq has launched 73 airstrikes across the north and west of the country. During that time, the coalition has only hit one site in Syria.

Abadi's leadership has seen him taking on corruption, getting rid of 50,000 "ghost soldiers" - fighters who exist only on paper, but whose salaries are mysteriously collected - making the government smaller and managing to pass a constrained 2016 budget in the face of a sharp decline in oil prices.

     Rigidity and stubbornness - classic 'strong men' attributes - can only lead to confrontations and gridlock

He's also close to sealing a major IMF deal which will help reduce state subsidies and reform state-run industries.

Iraq's prime minister is having to balance the Russians, the Iranians, the Kurds, IS and a plethora of other actors both national and regional. To succeed, he needs to bend in order to balance.

Rigidity and stubbornness - classic "strong men" attributes - can only lead to confrontations and gridlock. It may often seem like "weak" leadership, but it is pragmatic and adaptable to Iraq as it is now, rather than what the country was.

The challenge for Abadi is whether he will ever be able to move beyond crisis management into a political space where he is able to direct and shape the future of the country in a more positive manner.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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