It’s certainly good news that Nouri al-Maliki read the writing on the wall and decided to end his last-ditch resistance to giving up the job of prime minister of Iraq. How good the news is remains to be determined.
For one thing, although the U.S. undoubtedly played a role in forcing him from office (for which President Obama and Vice President Biden deserve credit), just as important if not more so was Iran, which refused to back Maliki after it became clear that large segments of the Shiite community, led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, were disenchanted with the prime minister. If Iran and especially its Quds Force under the command of General Qassem Suleimani had continued to support Maliki, he would probably have remained in office. But the Iranians value Shiite unity above all and so they pulled out the rug from under Maliki.
That’s a positive development, but a disturbing reminder of the outside influence that Iran continues to exercise in Iraq–which itself is a large part of the reason why so many Sunnis, intensely hostile to the “Persians” (as they refer to Shiites, both Iraqi and Iranian), are willing to side with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
We know little about Maliki’s putative successor, Haider al-Abadi. What little we have heard is good–he is said to be less insular, less sectarian, and less conspiracy-minded than Maliki. It helps that, while Maliki spent long years of exile from Baathist Iraq in Syria and Iran, Abadi spent part of his exile in Britain where, one hopes, he gained greater appreciation for democratic norms than Maliki has exhibited. But Abadi comes from the same Dawa Party as Maliki, and that party is part of the Shiite establishment that backed Maliki as he was victimizing Sunnis in recent years. The challenge for Abadi, and it is a big one, will be to show that he is not Maliki Redux–that he is genuinely willing to share power instead of trying to set himself up as another autocrat.
Part of the challenge will be for Abadi to voluntarily give up some of the authority that Maliki accumulated in extra-constitutional fashion–never an easy thing for any politician in power to do. In particular Maliki set up the Office of the Commander-in-Chief to allow him to circumvent the normal command structure and directly order the armed forces to perform his bidding, which usually meant targeting Sunnis. Abadi, as a first step, must disband this office and promise to respect the chain of command.
He must also weed out sectarians that Maliki appointed to the officer corps and work to hand power back to a professional officer corps, many of whom will be Sunnis. Moreover, he must end Maliki’s reliance on Iranian-directed militias. And he must not horde for himself the security ministries–Interior and Defense–as Maliki did; he needs to appoint a prominent Sunni to at least one of these posts.
This will not be easy for Abadi to do even with the best of intentions–and we have little idea of what his intentions are. Much of the Shiite establishment is sure to resist any diminution of its power and in this it is likely to have Iranian backing. It is imperative that the U.S. make a bigger commitment to Iraq not only to fight ISIS directly but also to push Abadi in a moderate, inclusive, non-sectarian direction that will make it possible to woo Sunni tribes away from the terrorists.
The Third Iraq War is hardly won yet. It has, indeed, barely been joined. Much work remains to be done including the dispatch of much greater military forces by the U.S. and its allies to work with the Iraqi security forces, Kurdish peshmerga, and Sunni tribes. And it is far from clear whether President Obama has the will to do that. At most one battle, albeit an important one, has just been won with Maliki’s imminent removal. The challenge now will be to consolidate this political beachhead. The greatest danger is giving in to excessive euphoria–to imagine that Iraq’s problems are now solved. Actually Iraq’s challenges are just beginning.