Iraq’s Leader, Heading to U.N., Pitches Himself as Face of Change

When Iraq’s prime minister addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, he is hoping to persuade the world that he is the leader who can finally solve his country’s persistent problems of corruption and political instability — and make it a reliable partner for the region.

He asserts that as the first Iraqi leader since the U.S. invasion in 2003 to have spent his entire life within the country, he is better able to understand what Iraqis have been through, and to make changes.

Every other prime minister after the toppling of Saddam Hussein spent years in exile or working abroad, but Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, 53, never fled Iraq, despite Mr. Hussein’s having ordered the execution of his father and other close relatives.

“I am a product of the institutions of the state,” Mr. al-Sudani said in a recent interview in Baghdad, “and I understand the citizens and their priorities.” He described himself as part of “a second generation” of post-Hussein politicians, and said thosewith his background were closer to the people and understood that “the street wants a change.”

Mr. Sudani’s assessment is born of 20 years of holding government jobs, from mayor to minister. During that time, he has managed to win over Iraqis of almost all political stripes, coming across as straightforward — even earnest — and pragmatic.

But he faces formidable obstacles, given the challenges confronting Iraq. Among them are global warming, the persistent and growing influence of Iran, and the entrenched system of corruption in a country where a high percentage of jobs are in government, and where applicants often must pay a bribe or have a political connection even for low-paying positions.

Karrada Street, a shopping district in Baghdad, in March, when the country marked the 20th anniversary of the American invasion.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

The 2022 election that resulted in Mr. al-Sudani’s becoming prime minister cemented the power of a coalition of Shiite Muslim parties, several of which are close to Iran and are affiliated with armed groups with links to the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Shiite party with a more nationalist identity — that of the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — won the most votes in 2022 but was forced out of politics.

Mr. al-Sudani, who is himself a Shiite Muslim, was ultimately chosen because he was acceptable to all sides, including Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish parties, though since his election some of his Shiite political supporters have turned critical as he tries to assert his priorities.

One of Mr. al-Sudani’s main goals at the United Nations this week is to unlock more investment from Europe and the United States, as well as reinforcing efforts with Sunni Arab states to help build an infrastructure for producing natural gas. That could eventually make Iraq more energy self-sufficient and less dependent on Iran, which now supplies about 35 to 40 percent of Iraq’s power needs.

Western businesses have been leery of investing in Iraq because of the endemic corruption, bureaucratic hurdles and political insecurity. Analysts who have long watched Iraq warn that some in Mr. al-Sudani’s political coalition may not support his outreach both to Western countries and Sunni Arab states.

“Sudani understands the energy problem. He understands that Iraq needs to hook up to other countries and that Iraq can’t be reliant on Iranian gas forever. But other parties that are more closely tied to Iran are not as keen on Iraq becoming more independent,” said Lahib Higel, the International Crisis Group’s analyst for Iraq.

The difficulty, said Rend al-Rahim, the president of the Washington-based Iraq Foundation, which promotes democracy and human rights in Iraq, is that so far, “Sudani is trying to steer clear of political rivalries and disputes — and this is an untenable position.

“If he really wants to succeed,” Ms. al-Rahim said, ”he’ll have to take a stand on a number of issues,” among them corruption, resolving differences with Iraq’s Kurdish minority, and strengthening relations with Sunni Arab governments in the region.

An Iraq Army helicopter over Baghdad in February.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

Mr. al-Sudani is trying to start to address young Iraqis’ frustration when they try to get government jobs by setting up a civil service council where open positions would be posted. But it is likely to be an uphill battle, in part because changes like this would undermine the corrupt patronage system that allocates government jobs by sect and party.

“I am realistic, and I would not claim that I will eliminate corruption completely,” he said in the interview. The important thing, he added, “is that there is a real will and no hesitation in holding accountable any person involved with corruption.”

The words are strong, but so far it has been hard for Mr. al-Sudani to have much impact.

Mr. al-Sudani also plans to seek help at the United Nations for “the most important challenge of the modern era,” which he said was “the severe environmental change that causes drought and desertification.” The United Nations ranks the Middle East and North Africa as the most water stressed region in the world.

Iraq is suffering its fourth year of drought, a topic on which Mr. Sudani is passionate, not least because his family comes from Amara, a city in southern Iraq that was once surrounded by rich farmland and now has seen its fields turn to dust. He has a degree in agricultural sciences and he can rattle off crop and irrigation statistics with astonishing ease.

Mr. al-Sudani did point to some recent positive signs in his campaign to stabilize Iraq and make it attractive to foreign business.

The country has been able to handle millions of pilgrims, who come from around the world to religious sites; Austria recently reopened its embassy; and the French energy giant Total is moving ahead in partnership with Qatar and Iraq on a major energy project in the country.

Iran, and to a lesser degree Turkey, both remain difficult neighbors. While at times they have been supportive, they have also consistently interfered with Iraq’s efforts to prosper.

Early in Mr. al-Sudani’s term, Iran bombed northern Iraq repeatedly, targeting anti-Iranian militants sheltering in the northern Kurdistan region and underscoring the ease with which it could violate Iraq’s sovereignty.

Mr. al-Sudani, second from left, with the national soccer team after it won the Arabian Gulf Cup.Credit…Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Iran was also implicated in November last year when an American civilian living in the middle class Baghdad neighborhood Karrada was killed. The Iraqi courts convicted an Iranian and four Iraqis connected to a Shiite militia that has not been named.

Then in March, a Russian-Israeli dual citizen, Elizabeth Tsurkov, was kidnapped in the same neighborhood.

The Israeli government and other Western intelligence services, as well as some Iraqi security officials speaking privately, say she was kidnapped by Kataib Hezbollah, a legal armed group in Iraq that is considered a proxy of Iran. Its political wing is part of Mr. Sudani’s coalition.

Six months later, there has been no sign of progress in the case.

“No group officially claimed responsibility yet for the kidnapping of the Russian woman, and even our information has not yet identified any particular group,” Mr. Sudani said in the interview. “The incident damages the reputation of Iraq’s stability and the capability of our security agencies.”

That stability is critical to his hopes for economic development and foreign investment, he added, suggesting that whoever was responsible was undermining his government’s goals for Iraq’s future.

Falih Hassan contributed reporting.

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