The Maliki Dilemma

The Maliki Dilemma

Sectarian tensions in Iraqi politics have reached a boiling point. Washington's response will make a bad situation worse.

A Way Forward

What should the United States be doing instead if not trying to help fracture Iraqiya? Washington has relinquished so much of its influence in Iraq. But at the very least, we can and should be outlining what a good solution to the current crisis would look like.

First and foremost, Prime Minister Maliki will need to be convinced to back off from his campaign against the Sunni leadership. Although he blames the Sunnis for starting things by agitating for a regional devolution of power, a right enshrined in the constitution, all he can legally do is insist that they follow the procedures established by law—and then try to persuade Iraqis not to support their bids. Instead he has tried to head off these moves by using all manner of legal and illegal actions to eliminate the Sunni leaders supporting regional status.

Thus Maliki must agree to some face-saving mechanism that would effectively eliminate the arrest warrant against Hashimi (even if it were simply to be placed in some kind of administrative limbo) and enable either Mutlaq to remain as deputy prime minister or allow Iraqiya to choose his replacement. This would have to be accompanied by a renewed commitment by the prime minister to implement the terms of the Erbil agreement, which outlined how the prime minister, the Kurds and Iraqiya would work together to govern Iraq. These conditions will be hard for Maliki and his advisors to accept, but the last will be the hardest by far, since the Erbil agreement mandates real curbs on the prime minister’s power. The Sunnis and Kurds (and perhaps some Shia too) now feel these curbs are more important than ever given how he used his powers to go after the Sunni leadership, exactly the sort of thing that the Erbil agreement sought to prevent. Unfortunately, Maliki has so far adamantly refused all of these moves, particularly the elements of the Erbil agreement intended to limit his power.

That said, Iraq’s problems go well beyond the actions of the prime minister. Everyone shares blame, even if it has been the prime minister’s actions that have caused the current crisis. If Maliki were willing to take such steps—and he has given no indication he would—it would be reasonable to allow him some concessions. For instance, Iraqiya might agree to a moratorium on provincial bids for regional status until a new process could be negotiated to address them. Iraqiya could also agree to a new deputy prime minister, someone other than Mutlaq, and a governmental commission to address oil contracts, another key problem for Maliki and the government.

The current crisis stems from the underlying flaws in Iraq’s political structure—flaws only partially addressed in what now seem the “good years” of 2007–2009. Like so many states that had emerged from decades of totalitarian rule—and in Iraq’s case, the shattering impact of an intercommunal civil war in 2005–2007—Iraq required more time and assistance by the United States, the United Nations and other constructive forces to build a new, stable and functional political system. That task remains incomplete and the premature withdrawal of American peacekeepers has placed enormous pressure on the very fragile, nascent system they left behind.

Unless Iraq can establish a new process to address its structural political problems, the country will undoubtedly face similar crises down the road, no matter what happens with the current one. And eventually, one of them will push the country into dictatorship, civil war or state failure. The United States cannot simply help the Iraqis paper things over and end the crisis as fast as possible. Instead, we must try to establish a more meaningful process of compromise and reconciliation, heading off what will otherwise be future crises to come.

Kenneth M. Pollack, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is coauthor of the new book, The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East.

Editor's Note: Please note that this piece has been amended to more accurately reflect the author's suggestion that it would be a reasonable concession to Prime Minister Maliki for Deputy Prime Minister Mutlaq, not Vice President Hashimi, step down.