Iran, US endorse Maliki successor Haider al-Abadi

Iraq moved closer to ending its political crisis yesterday by finally selecting a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. The decision by President Fuad Masum won approval from the US yesterday as Barack Obama didn’t even bother to mention his predecessor in a short statement from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. The wheels on the American bus weren’t the only ones that Nouri al-Maliki felt, either, as Iran endorsed Abadi as well:

Iraq’s new prime minister-designate won swift endorsements from both the United States and Iran on Tuesday as he called on political leaders to end crippling feuds that have let jihadists seize a third of the country.

Haider al-Abadi still faces a threat closer to home, where his Shi’ite party colleague Nuri al-Maliki has refused to step aside after eight years as premier that have alienated Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority and irked Washington and Tehran. …

Underscoring the convergence of interest in Iraq that marks the normally hostile relationship between Washington and Iran, the head of Tehran’s National Security Council congratulated Abadi on his nomination. Like Western powers, Iran has been alarmed by the rise of Sunni militants across Syria and Iraq.

Abadi himself, long exiled in Britain, is seen as far less polarizing, sectarian figure than Maliki, who is also from the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa party. Abadi appears to have the blessing of Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite clergy.

That puts Maliki, currently holding out with his elite military in Baghdad, in a tight spot. Until now, Maliki appeared to have the backing of Iran and the majority of Shi’ites in Iraq, thanks to his distribution of the spoils of power and his friendliness with Tehran. Iran, though, sees ISIS as a major threat to their own position and have finally come to the conclusion that the only way to mitigate it is to have a viable Iraq as a buffer state, at least. That means working with Sunnis and Kurds, and Maliki clearly isn’t the man for that mission.

Speaking of the military in Baghdad, there are indications that Maliki may not enjoy their loyalty for much longer, either:

However, a senior government official said commanders of military forces that Maliki deployed around Baghdad on Monday had pledged loyalty to President Fouad Masoum and to respect the head of state’s decision to ask Abadi to form a new government.

The key for Abadi will be to allow the Sunnis and Kurds to once again occupy senior positions in the government and military. Maliki purged them from those positions over the last three years, which forced the Sunni tribal chiefs to throw in with ISIS and the Kurds to look for independence. It may be too late to keep the Kurds within a unitary state in Iraq, but the Sunni chiefs will soon tire of ISIS’ despotic and ghastly rule. Abadi will have a narrow window in which to get them back in the fold, but there should be a realistic chance of turning them once again.

The last time that happened, though, the US military was the guarantor of the alliance that defeated the then-AQI insurgency. There is no US military presence now to act as guarantor, so the Sunnis may have some …. trust issues with Baghdad, to say the least. And while the US is pledging cooperation with the Abadi government once the Cabinet positions have been filled, a new military presence is not on the table:

The United States will consider additional military, economic and political assistance to Iraq once a new inclusive government is formed, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday. …

“We are prepared to consider additional political, economic and security options as Iraq’s government starts to build a new government,” Kerry told a news conference together with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and their Australian counterparts.

Hagel said the United States was prepared to consider further military support in Iraq. Kerry ruled out U.S. combat troops on the ground.

“We would wait and see what future requests this new government will ask of us and we will consider it based on those requests,” Hagel said.

The “no boots on the ground” strategy will only work if Abadi can unite the Iraqi army and raise its morale exponentially within a very short period of time. Part of that will depend on whether Maliki now leaves quietly (perhaps with some pressure from Iran?), or decides to play dog-in-the-manger and pull Baghdad down on top of all heads. Even if Maliki leaves with his blessing for Abadi, restoring the Iraqi military into an effective fighting force on its own against ISIS seems like sheer fantasy without Western intervention. If we aren’t going to fight ISIS on the ground, we’d better start giving the Kurds the means to do it now, and on a much larger scale than presently seen.