Politics & Policy

Weak and Unreliable

The Maliki problem.

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.

#ad#Petraeus’s strategy is not very pretty. It carries risk. But it is has been effective.

The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, however, is not happy with Petraeus’s actions. One top Maliki aide complained that it 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 — 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. The 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 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.

Does anyone imagine that Maliki enjoys the confidence of the majority of Iraqis? If he does not, parliament, representing the people, has the perfect right to vote no confidence and bring down the government.

And then? Rather than seek a new coalition as a shaky substitute, the better alternative is new elections. And this time we must not repeat the mistake of election by party list, a system almost designed to produce warlord leadership and unstable coalitions.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, returning from two weeks of reserve duty in Iraq, noted that the August parliamentary recess was beneficial because it allowed the members to hear from angry hometown citizens demanding political compromise and peace. But the problem with the current system is that Iraqi MPs are not elected by their hometown citizens. They are chosen by party bosses.

A sample of the countries that have chosen this absurd form of democracy — Italy, Israel and Weimar Germany — gives you an idea of the balkanized unstable politics party-list systems inevitably produce. With a constituency system — members elected by a real geographic entity — the Anbar sheiks would be sitting in parliament negotiating on behalf of Sunnis, rather than members of a faux-national Sunni party that represents very little.

New elections are not a panacea. They will take long to organize — which is why we should have been working toward this months ago. But the reconciliation from below that is actually happening in the provinces could — and logically should — be making national reconciliation possible in Baghdad. We can’t sit around forever waiting for Maliki.

© 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group

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