Is a change of Iraqi PM too late to halt the Islamic State?

New Iraqi PM Haidar al Abadi

It comes as no surprise that all external parties back the Iraqi President Fuad Massum’s move to replace Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with another figure from the same Dawa’a party, Haidar Al-Abbadi, writes Abdelbari Atwan.

For two consecutive terms, Maliki was Iran’s man in Iraq and Tehran supported him and ensured his political survival. But the rise of the “Islamic State” has changed all equations and turned regional diplomatic and political relations upside down.

Maliki has lost any remaining dignity he might have possessed with his stubborn refusal to step down. He even refused to listen to Ali al-Sistani, the top Shia spiritual leader, who urged him to abandon his stubbornness and make room for another to take on the task in which he has failed entirely.

He has also turned his back to the Shia national coalition which brought him to power, believing until the bitter end that Iran would not give up on him. How wrong he was in this and in his entire understanding of politics and political gamesmanship. He naively failed to take into account that players switch sides according to their own interests and ambition when the team leader starts to lose the game.

ISIS have made major advances across Iraq
ISIS have made major advances across Iraq

Al-Maliki’s game was up the minute the army of the Islamic State entered the heart of Mosul, and more than 30,000 of his own troops were defeated within hours; soldiers and officers sold their weapons for civilian clothes to wear and escape out of the city towards Arbil for safety.

If one Iraqi city after another had not fallen like swatted flies before the advancing Islamic State’s army which took Tikrit, Baiji, Anbar, Fallujah, and then began to knock at the gates of Arbil, the capital of the putative Kurdish State, then Maliki would have clung on to power and formed the new Government.

Iran realized that it would need the co-operation of all regional forces, as well as intervention by the international community, to respond to the creeping menace of the Islamic State.

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Unlikley alliance

Now we find the US and Saudi Arabia in the same trench as Iran; and I am sure we will soon see them scuttling to Damascus to shake hands with President Assad and welcoming him on board in the fight against the Islamic State. Maliki was an insurmountable obstacle to this unexpected and unlikely – but highly necessary – new set of alliances and so he has been tossed into oblivion.

Saudi Arabia put a veto on Maliki, refusing to deal with him and his Government in any way. Maliki’s sectarianism and his marginalization of the Sunni community has been disastrous for Iraq, but instead of accepting this criticism, and adjusting the balance of power fairly and representatively in his cabinet, he did just the opposite and launched extensive propaganda and media campaigns against the State of Qatar accusing it of supporting “terrorism” in his country.

Former Iraqi PM Nouri al Maliki
Former Iraqi PM Nouri al Maliki

Dr Haidar Al-Abbadi, the Prime Minister-designate, and Mr Maliki’s successor, does not face an easy task. The force that overthrew Maliki and his government – the Islamic State – is gaining strength and seriousness. In addition, the devastation caused by the presence of Mr Maliki in power for eight years will not be repaired with good intentions alone nor with a simple change of horses. It will take time and effort, the cooperation of local and regional powers and international success in this difficult task.

Dr Abadi, like his predecessor, Maliki, is from the Dawa’a party. Like him, he lived for more than a quarter of a century outside Iraq, in London – Britain being the host of choice for the Iraqi opposition abroad. Paradoxically, what is required is someone who can be entirely different from Abadi’s former leader and boss Mr Maliki.

Will Abadi be able to avoid repeating the same mistakes? Can he crawl out of the shell of sectarianism, and maintain a genuine openness to other components, particularly the Sunni component and employ it as an essential partner in Government? Can Abadi turn the tanker away from policies of exclusion that brought Iraq to the present state of chaos, instability and loss of its national identity?

The challenge of the Islamic State will be the biggest challenge for the new Government and its President. To defeat this Islamic Army will be difficult and costly, and it is debatable whether even the unified global forces (USA, UK and France) in a marriage of convenience with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, can meet this challenge.

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