Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki knows what he wants: a third term in office for himself and U.S. military help in defeating ISIS (now the Islamic State). Political reconciliation between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis, and between Arabs and Kurds, can wait. In the words of one of his colleagues in the State of Law Coalition: “Things on the ground are much more important. Solving them will help solve the political problem for us.” But, of course, the current crisis has its origins in the sectarianism that the Maliki government exhibited well before “things on the ground” got as bad as they are now.
Maliki had one bright shining moment as a national leader—his impetuous but (thanks to U.S. support) ultimately successful campaign to redeem Basra from Sadrist chaos in the spring of 2008 and his bucking Iranian pressure by agreeing, later that year, to a Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. Since then, however, it has been downhill toward sectarianism—and its inevitable result, overreliance on Iranian support to stay in power. Maliki may not yet be as dependent on Iran, and on Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but he is moving in that direction.
The Obama administration recognizes this situation, to some extent. It wants to use its military aid as leverage to force Maliki to govern in a less sectarian manner. It has even suggested that this process would be facilitated by replacing Maliki with some other Shiite leader who could deal with the Sunnis and Kurds unimpeded by memories of the last five years.
Unfortunately, this posture, while well intentioned, reflects a serious underestimation of the difficulties of the situation and of the damage that has been done to the dream of a united, democratic, and federal Iraq. Given the collapse of U.S. influence, the type of military aid Obama might conceivably provide is simply insufficient to effect the political changes he wants. (In any case, the actual leverage could come only from the threat to withdraw that military support, a threat that would be implausible and almost impossible to implement in the middle of the fight.)
Even when the United States had a large number of troops in Iraq, it found it challenging to dampen sectarianism and was often unable to do so. The United States could insist, for example, that the defense minister be a Sunni—but it could not prevent Maliki from bypassing the Ministry of Defense and asserting operational control of the Iraqi Army directly (through such innovations as the Office of the Commander in Chief and the provincial Operation Commands).
Similarly, the United States was unable to support adequately the members of the Awakening movement among Sunnis in Anbar Province and elsewhere, which was so important for the success of the surge. The Sons of Iraq—the Sunnis who rallied to the anti-al-Qaeda banner—were supposed to be integrated into the Iraqi security forces or otherwise employed. As long as the United States had a big presence in Iraq, it could ensure that they at least received monthly salaries. But as the U.S. presence was drawn down, it proved impossible to force the Iraqi government to take a generous approach toward them.
The United States was involved in reaching the 2010 agreements by virtue of which Maliki was elected to a second term as prime minister. As U.S. influence waned, however, the power-sharing mechanisms called for in the agreement were never put into place. Instead, Maliki concentrated even more power in his own hands, helped out by a friendly court that, for example, gave him direct control of the Central Bank and the High Electoral Commission and gave the government a monopoly on the introduction of bills in the Iraqi parliament.
Thus, the struggle against sectarianism and for an Iraq strong enough to withstand Iranian meddling has to be conducted in a new way. Iraq can’t go back to the old model of prolonged wrangling which produces a paper power-sharing agreement that the prime minister is then able to ignore. And, under current circumstances, the United States certainly can’t be content with an agreement of the sort it was unable to enforce even when its military presence in Iraq was orders of magnitude greater.