Iraq After Maliki

DENVER – Nouri al-Maliki’s fitful departure from Iraq’s premiership recalled many other cliffhanger exits by unpopular political leaders. His leaving did not come a moment too soon for the many Iraqis who have laid all of the country’s current troubles at his doorstep.

Maliki, according to this view, was endlessly divisive, driven by authoritarian tendencies, lacking in elementary political skills, and incapable of leading an army in disarray. But his greatest failure was his inability to grasp that successful governance in Iraq requires reaching out to other communities, notably the Sunnis and Kurds. Instead, Maliki ordered preventive arrests of young Sunni men, supposedly in anticipation of their defection to terrorist groups, and hounded his political opponents, in some instances driving them out of government (and in one case into exile).

No doubt, much of this narrative has a basis in fact. But if it were the whole story, the mild-mannered, Western-educated prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, would have an easy task in stitching things back together. After all, Iraq’s Sunnis would have every reason to support Abadi now that Maliki has gone.

In fact, Abadi will have his hands full. Iraq has been falling apart not just because of Maliki’s failure to reach out to the country’s 20% Sunni minority, but also because of the Sunnis’ failure to embrace a country whose majority political expression is Shia.