Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi (third from left) attends an election rally in Mosul. Image Credit: AFP

Mosul: Ahead of May 12 polls, 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 Al Abadi and his ticket in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, underscores his nationwide popularity and bodes well for his reelection, which US officials have repeatedly indicated they would like to see.

But beyond that, Al Abadi’s success in a place that had been the jewel of Daesh 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 Al 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.

Al Abadi’s list is named “Nasr,” or “Victory,” a reference in part to his role in ending the city’s Daesh trauma by orchestrating the military campaign that liberated the city last year.

Mosul may now be the ultimate proving ground for Al Abadi’s message of nationalism over sect.

“Al 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 the Daesh blitz that conquered about one-third of Iraq, Al 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 US ouster of Saddam Hussain in 2003.

Al Abadi’s popularity has soared since he managed the successful military campaign to claw back Iraqi cities from the Daesh 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 Al Abadi has a more balanced degree of support across all regions and across all ethnic and sectarian religious groups,” said a senior US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Iraq’s internal politics.

For the United States, Al Abadi’s presence in Mosul and other Sunni areas, such as Fallujah, is reassuring.

He has worked closely with Washington in the fight against the Daesh while maintaining cordial ties with Iran and reestablishing relations with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.

The war against Daesh has significantly altered the political map in Iraq, where Shiites are the majority.

In previous elections, one or two major Shiite coalitions dominated the vote and subsequently the formation of the government.

This year, the support of the Shiite political establishment is fragmented among Al Abadi and challengers old and new.

His predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki, though severely diminished because of losses to the Daesh, is headlining a ticket that is running on a traditional platform of Shiite supremacy.

Hadi Al Amiri, the head of the powerful Badr Organisation, is the face of a new coalition called “Fatah,” or “Conquest,” which represents Shiite militias that helped defeat the Daesh, earning much public support.

Many of those militias, including Badr, are backed by Iran, and a key element of their campaign has been urging the expulsion of US forces from Iraq.

In a sign of confidence, a number of the militias are running candidates in Mosul even though Al Abadi kept many of them out of the city during the battle because of their ultra-sectarian leanings.

With those major blocs essentially splitting the vote in Iraq’s Shiite heartland, any candidate hoping to become prime minister must run well in Mosul and other Sunni areas.

Nineveh, the province where Mosul is the capital, is quickly emerging as one of the hottest contests in the election. This year, 940 candidates have been registered, compared with just 455 in 2014.

Nineveh holds 31 seats in Iraq’s upcoming 329-member parliament, second only to Baghdad’s 69.

Iraq’s parliament elects the prime minister and president, and those 31 votes could prove critical to Al Abadi winning a second term.

His Nasr coalition is the only one fielding candidates in all 18 provinces, and many observers have concluded that he is the only candidate who can credibly claim to be a genuine centrist leader - even though his rhetoric of making a fresh, nonsectarian start has also been embraced by many of his opponents.

“His attitude is one that he will be more successful with a larger variety of constituencies than many of his opponents,” the US official said.

Rasha Al Aqeedi, a political researcher at the Dubai-based Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center and a Mosul native, said that Iraq’s minorities are unlikely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of another Shiite head of government but that Al Abadi remains the only candidate with the credentials to garner votes among Sunnis.

“If you compare him to everyone else, he does stand out for sure,” she said.

But there are major roadblocks Al Abadi must overcome in Mosul.

Voter apathy runs deep among the population after the grueling nine-month battle against the Daesh.

In western Mosul, the situation is dire.

The Old City neighbourhood, which saw some of the most intense fighting, remains largely leveled, with some families living in the skeletons of what used to be their homes.

On one street, a single election poster was hung next to a sign warning of unexploded ordnance in the area - drawing a scornful smile from a police officer stationed at the corner.

“These politicians have no shame,” he said.

Across the Tigris River in eastern Mosul, there are barely any reminders of the fight.

New markets have popped up at a startling pace, and cratered roads and bullet-pocked buildings have been repaired.

But the restoration has been largely self-financed by the city’s residents, who are becoming impatient with the central government’s slow response.

“There will be no change - if there was going to be any change, it would have happened already,” said Bilal Mohammad, a 41-year-old restaurant owner who said he will abstain from voting.

“These candidates are paying attention to Mosul now, but I’m certain once they get elected, they will forget about us.”

But he said that if Al Abadi wins, it “will be the best possible outcome in a bad overall scenario.”

Saleh Elias, a 34-year-old journalist, said he does not expect much to change after the elections but will vote in the hopes of registering his voice. Not doing so has been disastrous in the past, he said.

“This city has always rejected the political process, and what we ended up with was Daesh,” Elias said.

Al Abadi has stocked his ticket in Mosul with both new and old faces.

Most notably is Khalid Al Obeidi, a career politician whom Al Abadi named as his first defense minister in 2014.

Al Obeidi is a Mosul native widely respected for his role in the battle against the Daesh.

He retains his popularity despite being ousted by parliament in 2016 during a corruption probe in which he was never formally charged.

Mohsen Abdul Kader, 37, a law professor also running on the ticket, said Al Abadi and Al Obeidi had inherited a “military that was in shambles” and restored it so it could eventually liberate Mosul.

Abdul Kader added that they had treated all Iraqis equal under the law.

“People in Mosul are starting to feel like they are citizens just like the people of Baghdad, and this is because of the leadership of Al Abadi and Al Obeidi,” he said.

Al Abadi has also recruited local officials who gained prominence during the battle against the Daesh.

Basma Baseem, the head of the Mosul local council, was vocal during the conflict, drawing attention to the plight of civilians in the crossfire.

“Nasr is not just an election coalition. It’s an ambitious project that will start after the elections,” she said.

But Al Abadi’s popularity has also made him a prime target for his opponents.

Wissal Ali, a former member of parliament, is running on a purely Sunni ticket led by Osama Al Nujaifi - one of Iraq’s current vice presidents and a former speaker of parliament from Mosul.

On the campaign trail, Ali has accused Al Abadi’s coalition of being no different from that of the Shiite militias: outsiders interested only in votes and not in Mosul’s well-being.

She said the legacy of the Daesh has left the city politically vulnerable.

“People understand that the gangs of Daesh destroyed the city but also gave a chance for parties with outside agendas to gain a foothold in the city,” she said.