The Islamic State’s systematic extermination of the Yazidi minority and the horrifying pictures of radical Islamists’ children carrying around the heads their fathers chopped off have been vying for attention with a political crisis that threatened to destroy the central government in Baghdad.
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In the north, Kurdish Peshmerga forces were beginning an offensive against those of the Islamic State, aided by the U.S. and Iraqi air forces, while in Baghdad, Shi’ite and Kurdish parties were fighting each other over the appointment of a new prime minister.
The political war officially ended on Monday, when Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, tapped the Shi’ite Haider al-Ibadi to form a new government. The move ended the reign of Nouri al-Maliki, who had been prime minister for eight years. Dr. Ibadi, 62, is a member of Maliki’s Dawa party and until Monday served as deputy parliament speaker. He won the support of a majority of the National Alliance, a parliamentary bloc comprised of Dawa and several other Shi’ite parties, and even of many members of Dawa itself.
The choice of Ibadi stemmed from widespread public, political and international opposition to Maliki continuing in office. Maliki had acted like an elected dictator, putting his cronies in senior government jobs and freezing Sunnis out of the corridors of power.
Maliki did take firm action against terrorist groups in Iraq, and with American help he brought relative quiet to the country. But the battle he has waged in recent years against the Sunnis, most of whom live in western Iraq, sparked a political and military crisis that made it easier for the Islamic State to conquer large parts of the country, without any real opposition from the American-trained Iraqi army.
It was the Sunni tribes’ hatred of Maliki, not religious or ideological affinity, that led them to ally with the Islamic State against the Iraqi army. Under Maliki’s leadership, the army had been harassing the Sunnis for years.
The internal Iraqi fighting spurred even Tehran — which wants a relatively stable Iraq, with which it can trade and on which it can exert political influence – to abandon Maliki and seek a replacement. In this, it was joined by Washington, which sees Maliki as a threat to Iraqi unity.
Earlier Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry upped the political pressure on Baghdad by saying that America would expand its military involvement in the battle against the Islamic State only if a broadly inclusive government were formed. It was therefore quick to voice unequivocal support for the new prime minister.
Maliki hasn’t given up; he is expected either to appeal to the courts or to try to undermine the new government by activating militias loyal to him. But if he takes the latter route, he is liable to be arrested and jailed. And even if he doesn’t, the new government appears to be planning legal proceedings against him over his conduct in office.
Establishing a new administration might enable negotiations between the central government and the Sunni tribes, who are the key to a successful war against the Islamic State. Seven years ago these tribes’ militias proved their capabilities by waging a successful fight against Al-Qaida’s forces.
The new government is also likely to get substantial military assistance from the U.S. in the form of both arms and air support, though Washington doesn’t intend to send ground troops.
Nevertheless, the U.S. has effectively abandoned the principle of a united Iraq to which it hitherto had adhered. It circumvented the central government in Baghdad by sending arms and 300 advisers to the Kurds to help them in their war against the Islamic State. As in Syria and Afghanistan, so too in Iraq, Washington has discovered that in the absence of a reliable and representative central government, it must join forces with organizations or political and ethnic groups like the Kurds in order to fight its enemies.
The irony is that in Syria — the base from which the Islamic State invaded Iraq, and which has a government capable of effective military action against the Islamist organization — America has been compelled to cooperate with impotent militias whose weakness created the opportunity the Islamic State exploited.