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In first days in office, Iraq’s Abadi shows he’s not Maliki

Kurdish Peshmerga go upstairs inside an abandoned house, now used as a vantage point in Gwer in northern Iraq. Photograph from video, Sept. 8, 2014 (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic via AP video)
Kurdish Peshmerga go upstairs inside an abandoned house, now used as a vantage point in Gwer in northern Iraq. Photograph from video, Sept. 8, 2014 (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic via AP video) AP

New on the job, Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al Abadi, cuts a very different figure from his dour and distant predecessor, Nouri al Maliki.

He appears at state functions in an open jacket. He uses down-to-earth language. And he’s pledged an open government, economic reform and respect for human rights, which if they come to fruition would be a sea change in Iraqi public life.

But Abadi doesn’t mince words about Iraq’s incredibly dangerous situation following the attacks by Islamic State extremists and the collapse of the Iraqi army. It remains to be seen if he can overcome the crisis: On Tuesday, he suffered his first political setback, when Parliament rejected his choices for defense and interior ministers.

There’s no doubt whom Abadi wants to blame for the situation his country finds itself in, with essentially no army and large parts of its Sunni population supporting the Islamic State, which has occupied parts of Anbar province since January and much of central and northern Iraq since June: Syria.

During the recent visit of French President Francois Hollande, Abadi on seven occasions made a point that the Islamic State had launched its attacks from Syria. Hollande made the same point twice. The emphasis seemed to sketch a legal rationale for U.S.-led international forces to attack targets in Syria from Iraq and served as a rebuke to Syrian President Bashar Assad for allowing the Islamic State free reign in eastern Syria to move weapons and people back and forth across the border with Iraq.

Abadi decried “the bloody attack from our neighboring country, Syria,” but he said Iraq didn’t want to go to war against its neighbor. It was the international community’s “responsibility to stop these attacks, and . . . to intervene to destroy Daash, which killed Iraqis in cold blood and set out from our neighbor, Syria,” he said. “Daash” is the pejorative Arabic name for the Islamic State insurgency.

Hollande twice spoke of the “barbaric threat that came from Syria” and promised military help, though he didn’t say if France would bomb targets in Syria.

U.S. officials have said that defeating the Islamic State will require military action in Syria. “Daash is headquartered in the ungoverned space in eastern Syria,” a senior U.S. military official told McClatchy. “The attacks and supply lines, logistical lines, command and control of Daash is coming from Syria and feeds into and across the Iraqi-Syrian border,” which President Barack Obama acknowledged last week no longer exists.

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As much as his predecessor threw his energies into consolidating his power, promoting cronies beyond their competence in the security services and using the judicial system and cabinet positions to run vendettas against Kurds and Sunnis, Abadi appears determined to show himself as a champion of human rights.

Just how much of an emphasis surprised even a researcher for Human Rights Watch, Erin Evers, who on Friday sent a routine request to call on Abadi. He immediately invited her to his office for an hour-long meeting the next day.

“I was shocked,” she told McClatchy, and “impressed that he met me so quickly.” It was a “really good meeting,” she said. “He was very forthcoming, and I do think that his giving me a meeting immediately and publicizing it . . . sends a message.”

Abadi said in his statement that he’d made “a series of decisions” on human rights and “is so keen to prevent any violation of human rights of any Iraqi citizen.” That very morning, he told Evers, he’d given orders to the security forces orders to protect civilians by not shelling cities under Islamic State control.

One day later, Human Right Watch published a scathing report calling for an investigation of an airstrike in Islamist-held Tikrit that hit a school and killed 31 civilians, most of them children.

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Abadi also has committed himself to providing space for free media, an element of public life introduced after the U.S. invasion in 2003 that all but disappeared after the U.S. withdrawal of troops at the end of 2011.

At his first news conference, Abadi committed himself to an open government and to create “a space for freedom” of the media. He encouraged reporters to focus of the government’s mistakes “in order to make the government correct them.”

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Maliki’s government excelled at manipulating media coverage and denying access. Yet even in the most open of all Iraqi regions, the Kurdish Regional Government, which prides itself on having free and private media, reporting the war presents an enormous challenge.

Take the battle for Mahmour, a town about 35 miles southeast of Irbil, the Kurdish capital, which the Islamic State captured for two days in early August until it was liberated in heavy fighting. The question is by whom.

Fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, say they liberated the town. But the Kurdish peshmerga militia, which operates from a base close to the refugee camp where PKK fighters from Turkey live, claims that it did the liberating.

“I am very skeptical of lots of the stories being told,” said scholar Kenneth Pollack, one of the foremost experts on Iraqi security, who’s affiliated with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “In all of these little battles across Iraq, from start to finish, from the ISIS invasion onwards, I do not feel we know what happened.”

A PKK spokesman said the group warned the peshmerga that Daash was approaching but said “they didn’t have experience in fighting the militias, were afraid and withdrew.” Although few in number and lightly armed, the PKK say they took on Daash fighters who arrived in 60 Humvees and as many Toyota Hiloux pickup trucks, all equipped with heavy machine guns, and defeated them. “We started to hit them, and Daash started to withdraw,” said the PKK spokesman, who called himself “Dr. Masoum.”

The peshmerga tell a different story. For three days and two nights, “we fought along with the PKK” from nearby hills overlooking Mahmour and these attacks, with heavy machine guns and sniper rifles, are what drove Daash from the town, said Najat Kamil Khalil, a commander. The peshmerga showed off the spoils of battle – five Daash Humvees and a Badger light armored vehicle.

Neither account holds. A translator who visited the peshmerga in the hills overlooking Mahmour told McClatchy that the fighters were lounging at their posts, sipping soft drinks, and awaiting American airstrikes, which never came. But the PKK, a group with an enormous public relations apparatus, is equally unlikely to have won at Mahmour.

As Brookings scholar Pollack put it, “The idea that a handful of PKK took Mahmour does not make sense.”

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For now, the Kurdish region remains part of Iraq, at least legally. In the eyes of Iraq’s border police, however, visiting the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil, before arriving in Baghdad is a major infraction that bespeaks the reality _ in the eyes of many in Baghdad, Irbil is not an Iraqi city.

Departing via Baghdad’s international airport is already an ordeal thanks to the security measures, which feature dogs sniffing your luggage at two locations and security personnel inspecting passports and plane tickets at four separate checkpoints. But that is nothing compared to the immigration desk.

“You have a problem,” said a policeman. Where was my arrival stamp, he wanted to know? “Here, from Irbil,” I pointed out. The Kurdish capital had been my first stop in Iraq.

“Why don’t you have a Baghdad arrival stamp?” he responded. “Because I arrived on an internal flight,” I answered.

But you don’t have “clearance” from Baghdad, he said, referring to the exit visa. “But they wouldn’t give it to me,” I replied. “They said I had to have a Baghdad arrival stamp.” “Then you cannot leave,” said the official.

I pulled from my pocket an Arabic language order from the Foreign Ministry that officials accommodate reporter’s visa request quickly. But the supervisor said this was directed to Iraqi embassies, not to them. It was time to pull out the stops. “The prime minister says these petty regulations should be eliminated now and the government should do everything to accommodate journalists,” I said.

The official was bemused. “You cannot leave,” was the response.

At his press conference, I’d asked Abadi what he will do about the petty regulations that waste the time of Iraqis – and foreign visitors _ and his answer was forthright. “We have to find a solution for the suffering” Iraqi population, he said. “We have to take a hard look at procedures.”

With that in mind, I called the prime minister’s media assistant and reminded him of Abadi’s commitment. “He promised you to make things easier,” Maitham Kadhim agreed. Phone calls were made, and in 15 minutes I was in the passenger lounge.

This much can be said of Abadi: On helping reporters, he delivers.

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