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US Secretary of State John Kerry looks out over Baghdad from a helicopter on Sept. 10, 2014.
Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Palace in central Baghdad was once Saddam Hussein’s preferred spot for meeting foreign leaders. The complex here, which served as the headquarters for the U.S. occupation, is vast and gaudily ornate. A huge outdoor fountain features a golden dragon that blasts high-pressure arcs of water through the air.

Today the palace is back in the hands of the Iraqis, and again serves as a destination for dignitaries. Hours before President Barack Obama addressed Americans Wednesday night about how he’ll combat the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), John Kerry’s motorcade pulled up outside the palace under a blazing hot sun. The Secretary of State was there for a meeting with Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s new prime minister—and a man on whom Obama is placing a very large bet.

Two days earlier, Kerry had hailed the Iraqi parliament’s choice of Abadi to succeed Nouri al-Maliki as “a major milestone” for Iraq. That may prove true: Maliki was a disaster for Iraq and for U.S. interests, a quasi-dictator whose thuggish treatment of Iraq’s Sunni minority stymied the country’s political maturation and allowed ISIS to feed off of Sunni resentment.

But it remains unclear whether Abadi truly offers a new vision for Iraq—or just a new face.

The fight against ISIS could hinge on the answer. Obama’s speech tied his expanded campaign against ISIS directly to Iraq’s political reform. “[T]his is not our fight alone…. we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves,” Obama said, adding that his latest action “depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.”

But the rhetoric from Washington puts a happy face on a dicey reality. A senior State Department official admitted as much in a background briefing for reporters traveling with Kerry this week. “This is going to be extremely, extremely difficult. The problems that are confronting Iraq are incredibly challenging,” the official said. “And when you look at them day to day, they are so daunting that… you ask yourself where do you possibly go from here.”


ISIS hasn’t reached Baghdad, but this city is far from safe—even if the local cell phone carrier sends a text message wishing you “a pleasant stay in Iraq.” ISIS fighters have been detonating car bombs in Baghdad on a regular basis for months. Three of them exploded on the day of Kerry’s visit, killing 30 people.

Security dictated that Kerry first land in Jordan and then switch from his official State Department 757 to a military plane capable of tactical evasion and counter-measures. At Baghdad’s airport, Kerry strapped on a flack jacket for a short helicopter ride to the U.S. embassy compound inside the Green Zone, a district of government buildings heavily fortified against the daily violence beyond its checkpoints.

Kerry’s motorcade moved slowly through the Green Zone’s endless checkpoints and speed bumps. All around were armored vehicles with black-clad soldiers manning mounted machine guns. An army tank stood guard at the end of an empty bridge. Even the motorcade’s press van was joined by a security man with an assault rifle. Nerves were jangly. When a sudden “pop” was heard as Kerry exited one meeting, an Iraqi soldier came running with rifle in hand. “I was reaching for mine!” the security man said. It turned out a car had backfired.

After their private meeting, Kerry and Abadi met briefly with the press in facing arm chairs, glasses of orange juice on a table between them. Balding and pot-bellied, Abadi has a gentler air than the grim-faced Maliki, and sat with a warm grin as Kerry praised the “boldness” of his promises to resolve issues that have vexed Washington for years, including Sunni representation in Baghdad’s government and feuds with Iraq’s Kurds over oil revenue sharing.

After meeting several more top Iraqi officials later in the day, Kerry was even more effusive. In all his past visits to Baghdad, Kerry said, he’d never before heard such unanimous “commitment to the concept of inclusivity and of addressing the unaddressed issues of the last eight years or more.”

But beneath the happy rhetoric lie red flags. Abadi may speak in inclusive tones, but his background is ominously similar to Maliki’s. Both are members of the Shi’ite Dawa party, formed in opposition to Saddam’s rule and backed by Iran, a Shi’ite nation detested by Iraqi Sunnis. One former advisor to several U.S. officials in Iraq has described Dawa as having an “inherently secretive, sectarian, exclusionary, Iranian-sympathizing culture.”

And many of Abadi’s cabinet ministers are holdovers from Maliki’s government. Two of the most crucial posts—the ministers of defense and interior—remain unfilled. Abadi’s original choice to run the interior ministry, which controls the Iraq police, is the leader of the Badr Organization, a Shi’ite militia group that massacred Sunnis during the last decade. That prompted a Sunni freakout and pressure from Washington that torpedoed the choice. (Abadi says he will fill the vacant ministries by next week; whether he can will be a vital early test.)

Nor do Iraqi Kurds trust the Shi’ite power structure in Baghdad. The Kurds call their support for Abadi’s government good for only three months if their demands, particularly regarding oil revenues, aren’t met.

“There are lots of politics left to play out,” says Douglas Ollivant, a former top Iraq aide under Obama and George W. Bush. “But it’s in our interest to declare this government ‘good enough.’”

Kerry skated by such details Wednesday. At the U.S. embassy compound—itself a fortress within the fortress of the Green Zone—Kerry called Iraqi political reform “the engine of our global strategy” against ISIS. The advent of a new government, he added, means “it’s full speed ahead.”

It may be that Abadi represents a new dawn for Iraq. But we’ve been here before. Not so long ago an American president celebrated the creation of a new Iraqi government. “This broadly representative unity government offers a new opportunity for progress in Iraq,” he declared. “The new government reflects Iraq’s diversity and opens a new chapter in that country’s history.”

That president was George W. Bush. The leader of that new government was Nouri al-Maliki.

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