After Maliki

Iraq’s prime minister for eight years, Nouri al Maliki, has done as the United States and Iran wanted and stepped aside, in favor of his sidekick Haider al Abadi. What now?

Abadi’s problem is the same as Maliki’s. He needs an agreement with the Kurds and Sunnis that will bring him their help as well as international assistance in fighting off the Islamic State, which has occupied something like one-third of Iraq. It is not hard to imagine what they want:

  • the Kurds want to get assurances that the money they are entitled to get from Baghdad and the oil they want to export will flow unimpeded;
  • the Sunnis want more autonomy for the provinces in which they are a majority, along with increased clout in Baghdad;

These things have to be provided while satisfying Abadi’s own constituency:

  • the Shia want a central government in Baghdad that can protect them from the Islamic State.

The Americans, who have been parsimonious in providing assistance to Baghdad while Maliki was in place, will likely now loosen the purse strings, provided Abadi can convince them that he can reconstitute at least part of the Iraqi security forces and get some units out front ready and willing to fight. Abadi will be tempted to rely on Shia militias, as Maliki did. Washington needs to try to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The Kurds are already getting American weapons and training. It is an interesting question, one I was asked on an Al Rudaw (Kurdish) talk show this week, whether the US has made its assistance conditional on Kurdistan not moving towards independence. I really don’t know, but the fact that the US is not allowing a tanker carrying Kurdish oil to off-load in Texas suggests the answer is yes. Certainly Washington is trying to send two messages:  yes, Kurds, we love you and want you to fight the Islamic State; no, Kurds, we don’t think you should be sovereign and want you to stay in Iraq. But the latter may be whispered, or even implied, rather than stated.

Sunnis in Iraq have put themselves in a bind. They have supported an Islamic State takeover that will impose conditions many of them won’t like. But if they wait to rebel, it may well be too late. Many Afghans welcomed the Taliban initially, failing to understand how extreme and cruel they could be. They found themselves turning to warlords who were almost as bad as the Taliban. Something similar might happen in Iraq, where the Saddamists may be the only viable alternative to the Islamic State. But they, too, are almost as bad (some might think worse). Abadi really needs support of the type the Americans managed to cajole and buy in 2006/7 from the Sunni tribes in Anbar in order to fight the Islamic State and block Ba’athists from trying to recapture power.

But at the same time he needs somehow to maintain Shia confidence that he is not giving away their birthright. Maliki, if he stays in Iraq, will be sniping from the rear. He remains the caretaker prime minister until Abadi is approved in parliament (within 30 days) and presumably holds some sway within his own State of Law faction. Moqtada al Sadr and Ammar al Hakim, the leaders of the other main Shia factions, may take pot shots as well. The Iranians will be pressuring Abadi, as will the Americans. While they may pull in the same direction when it comes to fighting the Islamic State, and even in opposing independence for Kurdistan, they are likely to disagree on the relationship of the Sunnis with the Iraqi state.  Iran wants an Iraq in which Sunni power is clearly circumscribed, not one in which the Sunnis have a substantial degree of autonomy in the provinces and clout in Baghdad.

So Abadi has his work cut out for him. But Iraq now at least has a chance to start a new chapter of a long and difficult saga.


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