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Al-Maliki is the problem

Source: Arab News, by: Hassan Barari
US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that any Iraqi leader must be a unifier. Implicit in Obama’s statement is that Nuri Al-Maliki does not fit the bill of an Iraqi premier anymore. Having followed a sectarian approach against the Sunnis and the Kurds, Al-Maliki has become a polarizing figure. He mistakenly interprets the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime of 2003 as the victory of the Shiites. Not surprisingly, his brand of politics is winner-take-all-politics. Both Sunnis and Kurds have long complained of being discriminated against.

It seems that Al-Maliki’s insistence that the problem is only with radical groups will no longer work. While Washington considers the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a looming threat to the US national security, it also views Al-Maliki’s systematic sectarian politics as the reason to the rise of the ISIL. Moreover, Al-Maliki’s call on Iraqi Shiites to take up arms is an open invitation for a sectarian war. In other words, Al-Maliki’s approach to the current crisis has only enabled the ISIL to exploit the grievances of the Sunnis.

Against this backdrop, Iraqi top politicians have started to realize that Al-Maliki would not be able to stabilize Iraq. Hence, they have started jockeying to find a substitute. But this is easier said than done. The mission of forming a national government will most likely face some difficulties. The Kurds have two demands: First, the new government should accept that Kirkuk — controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces — as part of the autonomous Kurdish region. Second, they want the new government to accept that the Kurdish local government’s right to sell oil without oversight from Baghdad. On the other hand, the Sunnis will most likely ask for either the interior or the defense ministry.

To be sure, there is a near consensus in the region that Al-Maliki will not be able to reconcile with the Sunnis. Except for Iran, Hezbollah and Assad, no single government in the region believes that Al-Maliki can hold the country together. A new government that can help unify the country and avert the slide of the country into a civil sectarian war should include the Sunnis and the Kurds —a government that could help prevent ISIL and like-minded groups from exploiting the popular grievances.

The public debate in the US has stepped up pressure on the American administration to help replace Al-Maliki. Hence, the White House is weighing whether to throw its weight behind the effort to press Al-Maliki to step down. In Washington, there is a growing understanding that getting rid of Al-Maliki is the last-ditch effort to avert a destructive civil war. The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said on Wednesday, “There’s no question that not enough has been done by the government, including the prime minister, to govern inclusively, and that has contributed to the situation and the crisis that we have today in Iraq…Whether it’s the current prime minister or another leader, we will aggressively attempt to impress upon that leader the absolute necessity of rejecting sectarian governance.”

Evidently, it is good for Iraq to form a new inclusive government to avoid catastrophic scenarios. After almost seven years of Al-Maliki’s exclusive sectarian politics, Iraq now is even weaker and more divided than ever before. A growing number of Iraqis have come to understand that the stability and prosperity of their country lie in an inclusive government. Short of doing that, Iraq runs the risk of disintegration. The international community will be doing Iraq a huge favor by stepping up the pressure to replace Al-Maliki.