Maliki Bows Out

by Dish Staff

The Iraqi prime minister stepped down from his post yesterday, defusing a political crisis that just days ago looked like it would end in a coup:

On Thursday, the embattled Iraqi leader relinquished power and dropped the legal challenge to his successor, Haider al-Abadi, a member of his own Shiite Islamist Dawa Party. Abadi now has 30 days to form a new cabinet, and he will be under intense pressure from both Washington and Tehran — Iraq’s biggest patrons — to give powerful positions to members of the country’s embattled Sunni minority. The ministries of defense and the interior, which oversee Iraq’s security forces, have long been sought by Sunni leaders. Appearing on state television alongside his rival, Maliki pledged to support “brother” Abadi, citing the need for national unity.

Maliki’s change of heart came after his former backers in Washington and Tehran withdrew their support and urged him to step aside. He has also lost the support of much of his party and the Iraqi political class write large. Marc Ambinder observes that the US got what it wanted (and worked for):

Behind the scenes, the administration worked with Maliki’s party, the Iraqi National Group, offering assurances that the U.S. would stand fully behind its chosen candidate, so long as it wasn’t Maliki. The West encouraged Iraqi President Fouad Massoum to call for new elections within 30 days.

When people say that only a political solution will help Iraq, they mean two things. One: a strong leader who can unite the country without alienating a majority of a strong minority. Two: a political system that works, even minimally, and isn’t seen as unfair. Finding a strong charismatic leader is probably impossible, because Iraq has not lived peacefully without the strong arm of a dictator. It is a state that was drawn, not a state that drew itself. But the second is actually possible: Iraqis of all persuasions and demographic demarcations (Christians, Sunnis, Shiias, moderates, conservatives, agnostics, Baathists, and Kurds) need to have some confidence that they can participate in politics. Participating in politics creates a political culture, and a political culture forms bonds among even the most hated of rivals.

Juan Cole lists ten ways Maliki doomed himself. This was a big one:

In winter-spring 2013 when Arab Spring-type demonstrations were mounted by the Sunnis in places like Falluja and Hawija in the Sunni Arab west and north, al-Maliki declared them terrorists and sent in military troops and helicopter gunships to brutally suppress the protests. Sunni Arabs, having been informed that they would be a perpetual defeated minority in parliament were now given the idea that even peaceable assembly would be denied to them as a political tactic. Al-Maliki’s policies gave them no incentive to remain within the system. In the end they allied with the al-Qaeda offshoot, the so-called “Islamic State.” Al-Maliki didn’t so much lose the Sunni Arabs as drive them into the arms of IS with systematic policies of marginalization.

Al-Maliki’s successor needs to make the al-Da’wa Party a party of pan-Islam and try to attract Sunnis into it (this happened in the 1960s)– or better yet needs to found a Labor Party that could unite Iraqis across ethnicity and sect. This Shiite rule business can’t hope to put Iraq back together.

And Yochi Dreazen looks ahead to the challenges Abadi will face in forming a cabinet and uniting the country:

The Obama administration, which hailed Maliki’s decision to step down, has promised to increase its financial and military assistance to Iraq if Abadi’s new government has less of a sectarian bent than Maliki’s hard-line Shiite-dominated one.

Colin Kahl, who formerly served as the Pentagon’s top Mideast policy official, said Abadi will take office with widespread goodwill within the Sunni and Kurdish communities simply because he is not Maliki, who was reviled for instituting policies that discriminated against both groups. But Kahl said Sunni and Kurdish leaders will be looking to Abadi to quickly make substantive moves that show he is genuinely willing to share power. A key early test: whether Abadi puts Sunnis in control of the powerful ministries of defense and interior, which control the country’s military and police forces. Sunnis have wanted those posts for years to ensure that Iraqi security forces aren’t used against them the way they were under Maliki.