Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, must go.
He has made himself so intolerable among the country’s minorities – Sunnis especially, but Kurds and others, too – that the debates currently devoted to the country are superfluous without his departure. No amount of American special forces, drones or collaboration with Tehran is the right amount to save Iraq if he stays.
Sullen, simple, paranoid, inflexible and incompetent, the Maliki of 2014 is incapable of either management or delegation, of either leadership or consensus. His best quality, a stubborn toughness that was an asset during his first term (2006-2010), now cannot even deliver a modicum of security.
Maliki, refusing to appoint either a defense or an interior minister since the formation of his second government in 2010, has effectively held both portfolios ever since. His Iraq ranks No. 171 out of 177 nations in a world corruption index. It possesses possibly the largest oil wealth on the planet, but independent oil companies such as Exxon, Occidental Petroleum, and Statoil are either pulling out or selling down.
Most importantly, after eight years of increasingly sectarian rule despite a parliamentary coalition system that twice put him in power with a broad electoral base (and heavy U.S. backing), the arch-Shia chauvinist Maliki is hopelessly, terminally divisive.
Iraq has one piece of luck going its way these days. The current ISIS spectacular, bogging down already, happens to come at a critical time in Iraq’s constitutional calendar. On April 30, Iraq conducted its fourth national parliamentary election since January, 2005. The turnout was once again over 60 percent. International observers judged it free and fair, as they always have in post-Saddam Iraq.
Iraq’s Supreme Court certified the election results on Tuesday, and Maliki’s premiership has officially been in interim “caretaker” status since. The Land of the Purple Finger’s political system now settles down to choosing its next government.
It is this contest that really matters now. Washington must allow Iraq’s impressive electoral process to run its course and dump this disastrous government, as it surely will without American intercession on Maliki’s behalf.
After eight years of Maliki’s premiership, the recent election was more than anything a referendum on him. Seventy percent of the country, including 40 percent of his fellow Shias, voted No. Meanwhile, Iran does not love him: He is not particularly biddable, spent most of his exile in Syria and has bought almost all of Iraq’s weapons from the U.S. Today, barring an about-turn in the White House, the Obama administration is his only friend.
The current violence is not entirely Maliki’s fault. It is Iraq’s cruel destiny to sit geographically on the very fault line of a faith in which many Sunnis and Shias see each other as apostates – a sin punishable, for the strict, by death.
But Iraq can survive that. It is fashionable to call it an artificial country. In fact, Mesopotamia – the ancient Greek word for it – is the oldest geographical-political construct on earth. Its name, used immemorially in one way or another by local peoples, comes from Uruk, the city where writing was invented 4,000 years ago.
Under the Baghdad Caliphate that ruled much of the Muslim world from 750 to 1258, outbursts of bloody intra-Muslim sectarian violence did not break up the Mesopotamian core of the empire.
Under the Ottoman Empire, Iraq’s last polity before the current borders, the three provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul – corresponding to today’s Shia south, Sunni center and west and Kurdish north – were administered as a unit loosely answerable to Baghdad for centuries. Sunni-Shia violence and bids for independence in the Kurdish highlands were frequent, but they meant little.
More recently, Iraq survived the Sunni apartheid and quasi-genocides of Saddam Hussein. It survived the horrendous four-year bloodletting that followed the American-led invasion in 2003.
It is a tough place, probably the world’s toughest.
What Iraq cannot survive is a premier who can neither hold the country together by strength nor provide the tolerance and inclusivity to make the loose rule of Baghdad, as envisioned by the country’s popular federalist constitution, acceptable to the large minorities.
Bartle Bull is an author and journalist who has written about Iraq for the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Washington Post, New York Times and many other publications. His next book is a history of Iraq. He manages a fund that invests in the country. Follow him on Twitter@bb_bull.