Is Iraq coming apart?
No, in a word. Not yet. While the press waxes alarmist, what is happening resembles nothing more than the usual government “crisis” in a parliamentary system: once the government loses its majority, it is supposed to fall. I’ve been through dozens of these in Italy. There is no reason to get too excited about it in a country that has a parliamentary tradition.
Of course Iraq is not such a country. This makes everyone–Iraqis and foreigners alike–a good deal more nervous about a government crisis than would be justified elsewhere. We all fear that in Iraq crisis will mean violence, which does not yet seem to have been triggered, and autocracy, which Maliki’s opponents were warning of even before the latest events.
What has certainly happened already is that Maliki has turned to Iran to help shore up his hold on power. This bodes ill, as it exacerbates sectarian tensions in Iraq by underlining Maliki’s Shia base and pitting it against Kurdish and Sunni forces. We can only guess what Maliki now owes Tehran for its timely effort to unite Shia political forces in his favor.
There is an additional problem in Iraq: constructing a new majority. Prime Minister Maliki has long governed with changing majorities, depending on the issue. This makes it very difficult for his opponents to construct a stable alternative. Maliki is not likely to want to leave office until they do so. In the event of a successful vote of no confidence, this could lead to lengthy caretaker status, with his opponents claiming of course that he is no better than a dictator who doesn’t leave office when he is supposed to.
Early elections are another possibility. Maliki’s opponents are not likely to want them. Maliki might do well–polls show him gaining approval everywhere but in Kurdistan. His opponents could end up losing cushy jobs and perqs. It may just be bravado, but Maliki is behaving with the confidence of a prime minister who doesn’t fear a new election.
Some Americans may claim that Maliki’s turn towards Iran would never have happened if Washington had only left troops in Iraq. The trouble with this idea is that Iraq’s democratically elected government did not want them. Insisting would have strengthened the Iranians and deprived the U.S. of its current stance, which is that of an interested but not involved outside power. That ultimately is a much better posture than the one the Iranians have got, which is deep involvement in Iraqi internal politics that is bound to cause resentment.
No, Iraq isn’t coming apart yet. But it could. We should be doing everything possible to prevent that outcome. Most important in my view over the long term is working with Baghdad to make sure that a substantial portion of its increased oil and gas production is exported to the north (to Turkey) and west (to Jordan and some day Syria) rather than through the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz. It was a mistake not to have made this happen during the eight years of American military presence in Iraq. But clever diplomats should be able to make it happen even now.