Stringer / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

As Maliki steps down, little agreement over Iraq’s next power arrangement

Analysis: Maliki’s resignation and curtailing Islamic State advances will not alone fix underlying lack of cohesion

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's resignation on Thursday, reported by Iraqi state TV, was preceded by a rare consensus this week among major stakeholders in Iraq. From Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States to longstanding domestic political supporters and opponents, there was near unanimous agreement that Maliki’s time was up. It was Maliki’s own Shia political bloc, in fact, that dumped him as its nominee for prime minister.

The unprecedented series of events was aided by the rapid battlefield gains of the Islamic State (IS) insurgency in recent months, which helped tip the balance against Maliki, given ongoing political paralysis in Baghdad.

While the many parties with divergent interests could agree on ousting a divisive and dysfunctional figure and on the need to combat the Islamic State, there remains little consensus at home or abroad over how to govern a post-Maliki Iraq.

Click for more news and analysis.

That could present a significant problem, since Maliki’s sectarian and authoritarian tendencies were symptomatic of the failure to secure a new governing consensus among Iraq’s competing sectarian and ethnic political parties after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Despite what some saw as a breakthrough with the naming of Shia deputy parliamentary speaker Haider al-Abadi as prime minister on Monday, Middle East expert Juan Cole wrote that the situation remains as fraught as ever. He notes that several competing power centers are still vying for control in Iraq, including Abadi, who must create a new governing coalition; the independence-minded Kurds, who are operating with direct U.S. support in their battle against the IS; and the IS, which continues to press its campaign of trying to conquer parts of the country.

Iraq’s already complicated conflicts are exacerbated by its role as a battleground in the broader regional contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which reinforces Sunni-Shia political rivalry. Iraq’s Kurds, meanwhile, have long sought independence from Iraq, and that drive has accelerated amid the security breakdown prompted by the rise of the IS.

Since withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, Barack Obama’s administration has resisted efforts to reinsert itself into this complicated regional morass. But last week’s decision to launch limited airstrikes against IS positions suggested a changed calculus, and its subsequent decision to directly arm Kurdish forces and reports on Wednesday that it would send in ground forces to secure humanitarian corridors for the Yazidi minority mortally threatened by the IS further entrenched U.S. involvement.

Despite Obama’s insistence that the U.S. role will remain limited, many analysts across the political spectrum are wondering about the endgame for Washington’s military actions.

“Now the United States is back using force in Iraq on behalf of humanitarian and force protection goals, but with no apparent comprehensive strategy to achieve some clearly articulated end state,” wrote Michah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kurdish ambitions

In arming the peshmerga forces that answer to the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) rather than to Baghdad, the U.S. is backing a trusted military ally against the IS. But it’s the ambition of the KRG leadership to secede from Iraq that raises questions, particularly given tensions between Baghdad and Irbil over whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk falls within the KRG’s domain or under the central government’s. And there are intra-Kurdish tensions to consider.

The Kurds may have faced a number of battlefield setbacks against the IS, but they have over the summer solidified and augmented their territory, adding the long-prized city Kirkuk. Despite a reputation for being one of the strongest fighting forces in Iraq, the peshmerga are “not nearly as capable of defending territories the Kurds have taken over, at least not over the long term and under their current conditions,” said Denise Natali, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.

That much is reflected in the nature of weapons and support that the Kurds have requested from the U.S. and that other countries, such as France, are prepared to supply.

It’s not clear that the current turmoil will strengthen the move toward Kurdish independence — the U.S. has made clear it opposes dismembering Iraq, as do Baghdad’s Sunni and Shia political parties — but it is clear that some of the forces ranged against the IS have opposing agendas.

Then there are the competing Kurdish factions. While the U.S. support has gone to the KRG under Massoud Barzani, other Kurdish factions remain major players in the region, including one group that the U.S. government has labeled a terrorist organization.

McClatchy reported on Monday that fighters associated with the PKK, which has waged a decades-long campaign of violence against the Turkish state, played an important role in some of the fighting to hold the line against the IS.

Sunni disenfranchisement

The key challenge facing any post-Maliki government, however, remains overcoming the alienation of Sunni Arabs from the new order in Baghdad — a situation that has had no small part in enabling the rapid spread of the IS across northern Iraq. It’s not clear that Abadi’s replacing Maliki at the head of the dominant Shia coalition will necessarily result in Sunni reintegration.

The International Crisis Group said recently that the success of the IS insurgency is partly a result of pushing “against a house of cards, a state structure weakened by accumulated Sunni grievances.”

Many Sunnis still feel betrayed by Baghdad for their treatment immediately before and after the U.S. pullout, when Maliki rounded on a number of prominent Sunni leaders who had led a fight against Al-Qaeda and related groups through Awakening Councils.

“The difficulty is that when al-Abadi goes to the [Sunni] tribal chiefs, he may not get much of a hearing,” wrote Cole. “He is, after all, from al-Maliki’s party.”

Iran and Saudi Arabia might have finally concurred on the need to replace Maliki, but there’s no sign that they have reached accord on what would constitute an acceptable distribution of power in Iraq — or anywhere else in the region.

So while Maliki’s ouster closes a difficult chapter in post-Saddam Iraqi history, the next one may yet be equally turbulent.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter