Iraq's PM designate Haidar al-Abadi a 'genial but tough' former exile

A file picture taken on November 22, 2009 shows Iraqi MP and Dawa party member Haidar al-Abadi in Baghdad. Iraq's National Alliance parliamentary bloc has chosen Mr Abadi as its nominee for prime minister in place of incumbent Nouri al-Maliki. -- PHO
A file picture taken on November 22, 2009 shows Iraqi MP and Dawa party member Haidar al-Abadi in Baghdad. Iraq's National Alliance parliamentary bloc has chosen Mr Abadi as its nominee for prime minister in place of incumbent Nouri al-Maliki. -- PHOTO: AFP 

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Haidar al-Abadi, tasked with forming Iraq's next government during a major crisis, is a former exile and long-serving MP described variously as a genial, tough, diplomatic and uncontroversial politician.

Many of those characteristics are a sharp departure from outgoing premier Nouri al-Maliki, who is opposed by Iraq's Sunni Arabs and some of his own Shi'ite community, and has defiantly insisted he is being robbed of a third term in a violation of the country's constitution.

Mr Abadi, a member of Mr Maliki's Dawa party, earned a doctorate from Manchester University in Britain, where he remained in exile for much of Saddam Hussein's rule.

Two of his brothers were arrested and executed by Saddam's regime for membership in the Dawa party, which opposed his rule, while a third was imprisoned for a decade on the same charge.

Mr Abadi, a balding man with a close-cut white beard, returned to Iraq following Saddam's overthrow in 2003 and became communications minister in the interim government set up after the dictator's fall.

Mr Abadi, who was born in 1952, was elected to parliament in 2006, chairing the Economy, Investment and Reconstruction Committee and then the Finance Committee.

He was voted deputy parliament speaker in July, before being tapped to form the government.

"Haidar is a very friendly person, very down-to-earth," said legal expert Zaid al-Ali, author of the book The Struggle For Iraq's Future.

"People... accept that he's a very easy person to speak to. You don't need to look over your shoulder after speaking with him, you don't have to be worried about disagreeing with him," Ali said.

Kirk Sowell, the Amman-based publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter, said Mr Abadi is "a completely mainstream guy, he's kind of a grey suit."

"He doesn't have any enemies, he's avoided controversies," and "he's never been one to push for reform," Sowell said.

"Up until recently, he's been a Maliki surrogate," he said. "I have never seen much daylight between the two of them."

Haidar al-Khoei, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank, said Mr Abadi may be a positive change from Mr Maliki.

"From what I hear from within Dawa circles, he is clearly much smarter than Maliki. He has a lot more business experience as well," Khoei said.

"He's still tough," but "he's also more diplomatic and more reconciliatory, and I think that gives him the edge in terms of being able to form a government."

If he is successful in doing so in the next 30 days, Mr Abadi will face enormous challenges as premier.

Iraq suffers from rampant corruption, has major shortfalls in basic services such as electricity and clean water, and is sharply divided along religious and ethnic lines.

But the greatest of all will be security, with jihadist-led insurgents in control of large areas of five Iraqi provinces, and hundreds of people killed in attacks each month.

Mr Maliki sought to address violence, which has been on the rise since April 2013, with military force, making little in the way of concessions to his opponents, especially members of the country's Sunni Arab minority.

But without reaching out to Iraqi Sunnis and giving them a significant stake in politics and government, it will be extremely difficult to bring the violence plaguing the country under some semblance of control.

Of the widespread challenges Mr Abadi faces, Khoei said: "I don't think it's going to be easy, but with Maliki, it will be impossible - that's the bottom line."