It is beyond time for embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step off the stage and allow his replacement to attempt to end the civil war tearing the country apart. If he resists, the role for the United States should be to make him as uncomfortable as possible until he sees the light.
Al-Maliki’s obstinance is making a difficult situation worse for him, for Iraq and for the Obama administration. Al-Maliki’s opponents, at this point, include just about everyone. There are reports that even his Iranian friends wouldn’t mind seeing him gone. Many in his own Dawa party have deserted him and the numbers of supporters surrounding him at his thunderous media events are growing smaller.
Al-Maliki is widely blamed for the sectarian divide that has polarized politics in Iraq. There is little doubt that resisting calls for him to leave will make Iraq’s shaky future even more uncertain.
Even with a change in leadership, there seems to be slim hope of mending Iraq’s sectarian fractures and uniting the country. That task will fall to Haider al-Abadi, who has 30 days to form a new government.
In the meantime, the situation is growing tenser.
During his eight years in power, al-Maliki has concentrated political power in his fellow Shiites and marginalized Sunnis and Kurds. That alienation of the country’s Sunni minority helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Sunni extremist group known as ISIS.
Last week, President Obama ordered airstrikes against ISIS positions in northern Iraq in order to help save the lives of tens of thousands of Yazidis and other refugees fleeing ISIS. The Obama administration is facing the twin concerns of that humanitarian crisis and figuring a way to protect Americans in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, and Baghdad while avoiding full-scale war with ISIS.
Al-Maliki stands in the center of all this chaos and wants to remain there. He has ordered troops loyal to him into the streets while ordering other security forces not to become involved in the crisis. His continued meddling in Iraqi politics will only empower ISIS and hasten the breakup of his country.
The Obama administration is making the right moves in letting it be known that the United States would consider expanding military and political support for Iraq if al-Abadi assumes the duties of prime minister and leads a coalition government recognizing the rights of all Iraqis. The country may be beyond saving, but with Maliki in charge, it certainly will be.
Right now, the new leader is Iraq’s best hope.