(The Washington Post) MOSUL, Iraq — In advance of national elections next weekend, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is the front-runner here, and if he ultimately prevails, he will make political history as a Shiite politician in this overwhelmingly Sunni city.
The electoral strength of Abadi and his ticket in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, underscores his nationwide popularity and bodes well for his reelection, which U.S. officials have repeatedly indicated they would like to see.
But beyond that, Abadi’s success in a place that had been the jewel of ISIS would represent an opening for cooperation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in a country long bedeviled by sectarian grievance and violence.
When campaigning officially kicked off last month for the May 12 elections, the boulevards of this city were instantly lined with candidate posters. But it was Abadi’s face, smiling softly and ubiquitous on the vehicle-jammed streets, that stood out as both familiar and entirely unexpected.
For the first time since Iraq began electing a legislature in 2006, a Shiite politician is headlining an electoral ticket in Mosul. Abadi’s list is named “Nasr,” or “Victory,” a reference in part to his role in ending the city’s ISIS trauma by orchestrating the military campaign that liberated the city last year.
Mosul may now be the ultimate proving ground for Abadi’s message of nationalism over sect.
“Abadi is a symbol of shedding sectarianism,” said Rana al-Naemi, 44, an English teacher from Mosul running on the prime minister’s list. “The people of Iraq are ready for this.” Alluding to the traditional colors worn by Sunni and Shiite clerics, she added, “Sectarianism is what destroyed us — whether it was a white turban or a black turban.”
Once considered a weak and unremarkable leader who stumbled into power in the midst of ISIS blitz that conquered about one-third of Iraq, Abadi has been campaigning on a message of national unity in hopes of breaking the cycle of sectarian fighting that has marked Iraq’s politics since the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Abadi’s popularity has soared since he managed the successful military campaign to claw back Iraqi cities from ISIS while artfully juggling the interests of the United States and Iran. He also won plaudits from many Iraqis when he dispatched troops to block an attempted secession by Kurds in the north late last year.
“One thing that we see consistently is that Prime Minister Abadi has a more balanced degree of support across all regions and across all ethnic and sectarian religious groups,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Iraq’s internal politics.
For the United States, Abadi’s presence in Mosul and other Sunni areas, such as Fallujah, is reassuring. He has worked closely with Washington in the fight against ISIS while maintaining cordial ties with Iran and reestablishing relations with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.
The war against ISIS has significantly altered the political map in Iraq, where Shiites are the majority.