Thinking Beyond Maliki
The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has had more than 15 months to try to pacify the Sunni insurgency by offering national accords on oil-sharing, provincial elections and de-Baathification. It has done none of these. Instead, Gen. David Petraeus has pacified a considerable number of Sunni tribes with grants of local autonomy, guns and U.S. support in jointly fighting al-Qaeda.
Petraeus's strategy is not very pretty. It carries risk. But it has been effective.
The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, however, is not happy with Petraeus's actions. One top Maliki aide complained that they will leave Iraq " an armed society and militias."
What does he think Iraq is now? Except that many Sunni militias that were once shooting at Americans are now shooting at al-Qaeda.
The nature of the war is changing. In July, 73 percent of the attacks that caused U.S. casualties in Baghdad were from Shiite militants, not Sunnis. Maliki is no fool. As more Sunni tribes are pacified, he can see the final military chapter of this war coming into focus: the considerable power of the American military machine slowly turning its face to -- and its guns on -- Shiite extremists.
Of the many mistakes committed in Iraq, perhaps the most serious was to have failed to destroy Moqtada al-Sadr and the remains of his ragged army when we had him cornered and defeated in Najaf in 2004. As a consequence, we have to face him once again. The troop surge has already begun deadly and significant raids into Mahdi strongholds in Baghdad.
Sadr is hurting. On Wednesday, after many were killed in Shiite-on-Shiite fighting in Karbala, he called for a six-month moratorium on all military operations in order to permit him to " rehabilitate" his increasingly disorganized forces.
At the same time, however, Maliki is denouncing us for overkill in our raids on Shiite areas. A rift between Washington and Baghdad is opening. It will only widen as long as Maliki is in power.
Now, Maliki is no friend of Sadr or Iran. He knows that if they ultimately prevail, they will swallow him whole. But Maliki is too weak temperamentally and politically to make the decisive move in the other direction -- toward Sunni and Shiite moderates -- in order to make the necessary national compromises.
So he hedges his bets. He visits Iran and, then, while on a Syrian visit, responds to calls for the Iraqi parliament to bring his government down by saying, " Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria" and warning darkly that Iraq "can find friends elsewhere."
Maliki is not just weak but unreliable. Time is short. We should have long ago -- say, when national security adviser Stephen Hadley wrote his leaked memo last November about Maliki's failure -- begun working to have this dysfunctional government replaced.
Even the French foreign minister, upon returning from a recent fence-mending trip to Iraq, called for Maliki's replacement. (One can discount his later apology as pro forma.) Such suggestions are often denounced as hypocritical and contrary to democracy. Nonsense. In a parliamentary system, a government serves only if it continues to command confidence.