Nouri al-Maliki has lost his job, but it doesn't really matter

Iraq's president has nominated a replacement for Prime Minister Maliki, who is unpopular at home and abroad. But Iraq's problems go much deeper.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters/File
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad in this January 12, 2014 file photo. Maliki indicated on August 10, 2014, that he will not drop his bid for a third term and accused the president of violating the constitution in a tough televised speech likely to deepen political tensions as a Sunni insurgency rages.

Does it matter that Nouri al-Maliki is apparently on his way out as Iraq's prime minister? Probably not very much.

That might be a surprising claim if you've been following much of the news coverage of Iraq's political turmoil.

Mr. Maliki's eight years as prime minister have been marked by growing authoritarianism, Shiite chauvinism towards the country's Sunni Arab minority, and the conversion of the national army into a plaything for the prime minister's friends and allies. Maliki's chauvinism helped set the stage for the events of the past few months, in which the Sunni jihadi army of the so-called Islamic State seized substantial portions of territory, including the northern city of Mosul. 

And that's true, as far is it goes.

But there's no particular reason to believe that Haider al-Abadi, the new prime minister-elect, will rule any differently than Maliki, assuming that Maliki doesn't try to seize power for himself during the interim. Mr. Abadi is a senior member of Maliki's Shiite Islamist Dawa Party. Like Maliki, his political life began in Dawa's underground insurgency against Saddam Hussein in the 1970s. Like Maliki, Abadi was an exile whose family members were among the many victims of Mr. Hussein. 

Since the US decision to topple Hussein in 2003, he has been a powerful figure in various Shiite-dominated governments that followed. He's served in parliament since 2006, and for much of that time was a close adviser and confidant of Maliki's.

Maliki's rule in Iraq, while it outraged and frightened Sunni Arabs and Kurds, was generally pretty popular among Shiites. In April, the electoral block he leads actually improved on its 2010 parliamentary election performance, despite a surging death toll from Iraq's long-running civil war and the loss of control of much of Anbar Province, to the west of the capital.

So Maliki as prime minister represented a substantial Iraqi constituency, or perhaps better, reflected one. Abadi is now meant to be a reflection of that same constituency, which hasn't changed overnight. Why would he be much different?

Limits to PM's power

This isn't to argue that Maliki may as well stay on since it's inconceivable that a political answer to the country's complicated and blossoming crisis could emerge under his divisive leadership. That Maliki needed to go appears to have become a rare point of consensus between two of Iraq's most important international backers – the US and Iran. And his own party had clearly had enough.

But finding a political answer to Iraq's crisis is just slightly less inconceivable without Maliki. And there's a limit to what any Iraqi prime minister can do at this point. Even if Abadi turns out to be the sort of inclusive, wise, compromising Iraqi politician that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry long for, repairing the damage will take years.

The collapse of the Iraqi army was a function of rot from within, a result of rampant corruption that started with the officer corps and trickled down. Building a professional army is no easy thing, and certainly not a fast one. The US spent well over $20 billion training and equipping the new Iraqi army between 2003-2012. The result? A rout in the north of Iraq in June in the face of an offensive by jihadis working in concert with officers and soldiers from the Saddam-era army that the US dissolved. The jihadis are now wielding many of the weapons the US had provided to Iraq's army and tooling around in US provided Humvees. 

No awakening in sight

President Obama appears to realize the extent of this problem, which is why the US has reportedly agreed to provide arms directly to the separatist-leaning army under Kurdish control in the north. While Obama has been reluctant to do anything that could overtly encourage the break-up of Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga seem a far better bet of slowing the spread of the Islamic State in northern Iraq at the moment. Their resistance has created some humanitarian breathing room for the Christian and Yazidi communities that the jihadis had marked for death. 

Yet the fundamental political problem now is one of zero trust. Sunni Arabs have been treated like beaten dogs in many parts of the country for a great many years now. While Sunni Arab tribes turned on Al Qaeda in large numbers after 2006 in the so-called sahwa, or awakening, that was partly in exchange for promises of a chance at federalism, of opportunities for government jobs, and to find a dignified place in the new Iraq. 

Those promises were trampled into the dirt of the following years, which will make creating a second awakening far, far harder than it was the first time.

Abadi, who has a month to form a government and win approval from parliament, can hardly do any worse than Maliki. But the deck is stacked against him doing much better.

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