In this July 15, 2014 file photo, Haider Al Abadi speaks to the media after an Iraqi parliament session in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

London: Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, is a low-key figure who spent much of his life living in exile in Britain, before returning to Iraq after the 2003 invasion. A Shiite, he has previously been touted as a replacement for Nouri Al Maliki, the embattled incumbent.

On Monday Iraq’s president appointed Al Abadi as prime minister-designate and tasked him with forming a new “inclusive” government.

Born in Baghdad in 1952, Al Abadi joined the Islamic Dawa party — Al Maliki’s party — at the age of 15. His father, Jawad Al Abadi, was a prominent Baghdad doctor and hospital director who became inspector general at the Iraqi health ministry. After the Baathists seized power, Al Abadi and his family came into conflict with the Saddam Hussain regime.

Al Abadi studied electrical engineering in Baghdad, and then in the late 1970s moved to Britain to do a doctorate at Manchester University. In the UK, Al Abadi became an outspoken Saddam critic and Dawa activist. In 1982 the Baath regime executed two of his brothers, and imprisoned a third for ten years. It cancelled his Iraqi passport in 1983. His father died in exile and was buried in London.

According to Al Abadi’s biography, posted on Monday on his Facebook page, he worked in the UK as an “expert in the technology of rapid transit” — the subject of his doctoral thesis. In London, he ran his own small design and technology firm and in 1997 received a grant from the trade and industry ministry for technology innovation. Al Abadi also hosted a London cafe popular with Iraqi exiles.

Al Abadi returned to Iraq in 2003, where he became a key adviser to Al Maliki in Iraq’s first post-invasion elected government. He held a series of senior posts, including minister of communications and, most recently, deputy speaker of parliament.

Following months of political deadlock, the moderate Dawa faction supported Al Abadi’s nomination as prime minister on Monday. Al Maliki’s refusal to give up the prime minister’s job — his supporters say he will challenge Al Abadi’s appointment in court — raises the prospect of Shiite versus Shiite conflict, both in Baghdad and beyond.

Al Abadi’s urgent political task will be to stop Iraq’s rapid disintegration and to halt the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which in recent months has seized vast swaths of northern and western Iraq. In an interview in June with the Huffington Post Al Abadi bluntly warned that Isil militants were a “catastrophe” not only for Iraq, but for the entire region, and the West too. He said that the Iraqi government was able to defend Baghdad but it would require outside help — “even from Iran” if necessary — to kick Isis out of the country.

A moderate, Al Abadi is likely to enjoy support from Kurds and Sunnis, who have accused Al Maliki of pursuing a sectarian agenda and excluding them from power.