Iraq’s situation is desperate. What makes it worse is that its political class, and many American officials, continue to push a cure that would be worse than the disease: a breakup of Iraq along sectarian lines.
If the past 11 years have proved anything, it is that a lack of representation and inclusiveness in Iraq’s government and institutions is not the problem. What we have learned since 2003 is that merely ensuring that there are ministers from each of Iraq’s main communities — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and minorities like the Chaldeans and Turkmen — will not ensure that they will represent those communities’ interests, let alone the national interest. Any American influence left in Iraq should focus on rebuilding the credibility of national institutions.
Instead, supposed experts are advising us to further entrench our ethno-sectarian model and allow each of the country’s main communities to govern itself and manage its own security. This ignores the current reality. There is no chance that Baghdad will allow for the Sunni-majority provinces to develop serious security forces. There is so much distrust at the moment that the idea that the Shia-dominated state would let political and religious rivals arm themselves with heavy weapons and establish an army along the lines of the Kurdish pesh merga is ludicrous.
Even if Baghdad were pressured into accepting such an agreement, the Sunnis could not properly manage an exclusively Sunni fighting force — given that Iraq’s Sunni politicians are just as corrupt as the Shiite parties that control Baghdad. The little experience Iraq has in auditing, oversight and project management is concentrated in Baghdad, so new regional or provincial institutions would most likely be even more corrupt than the national institutions.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has deservedly been the focus of criticism, given his authoritarian exercise of his constitutional powers, his paranoia and his blindness to real dangers. But the rest of Iraq’s elite has not done any better. Parliamentary elections took place in late April, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria began its first push into Mosul in early June, and yet Parliament is still nowhere near forming a government.
The little progress that has been made — electing a new parliamentary speaker and a new president — was a result of pressure from the country’s religious institutions. The only major security initiative since ISIS burst onto the scene has been to encourage Iraqis to volunteer to replace those army units that collapsed in June. Tens of thousands of mostly unemployed young men have signed up — only to find that the same incompetent and corrupt elements that had infested the regular armed forces were leading them into battle with close to no training, equipment or support.
Our political class behaves as if there is no crisis, because for them, there is none: If it comes to it, they can pack their bags and leave with their families. In fact, a number of those parliamentarians who were elected in 2005, 2006 or 2010 and who did not return to office after this year’s elections have left.
Sadly, none of the men being considered as possible replacements for Mr. Maliki would necessarily do any better than he has. Their records, from their time in exile in the 1990s, are dubious at best. Ibrahim al-Jafari, a front-runner, did nothing to curb militia activity when he was prime minister in 2005-6, and refused to impose a curfew that might have prevented the bloody civil war that erupted. Ahmad Chalabi’s name is frequently floated, but his family banking business was a failure, his opposition group in exile was accused of mismanaging American funds, he has failed to win a single seat in Parliament in his own right in each of Iraq’s elections, and he has no executive experience of note. A third candidate, Tariq Najm, is a virtual unknown — as Mr. Maliki was when he was picked in 2006. The main advantage of Adel Abdul Mahdi, the final candidate, is that he alone probably realizes that he is not capable of governing the country on his own and would therefore rely on assistance from outside his immediate circle. That may be reason enough for him to occupy the position.
But what policies would he pursue? The solution lies not in further division or the establishment of rival regional armies, but in the reversing of those trends by re-establishing national institutions that treat all citizens on an equitable and equal basis. The Iraqi Army did exactly that in 2010, until Mr. Maliki’s corrosive influence took hold. It was not particularly competent, but at least — unlike now — it had the respect of the population.
Since 2003, unknown numbers of Iraqis have been detained without charge for weeks and months (sometimes longer) and subjected to human rights abuses. It is not enough for that practice to come to an end; serial torturers, prison guards and judges must be held to account publicly and immediately, to convince Iraqis that a page has been turned. Such an effort is necessary if Iraqis are to trust and fight alongside their new government in the effort to rout ISIS.
Similarly, the power Mr. Maliki granted himself over the military and the police should be transferred to a civilian-led national council with authority to review all major security policies.
Iraq’s problems are not primarily religious (as Westerners so often believe) or economic (oil revenues are being shared, and there is enough money to finance government operations). They are, as always, is political.
If the existential threat from ISIS isn’t enough to shake the political class into acting, nothing will. Having ignored Mr. Maliki’s abuses so as to complete the troop withdrawal by 2011, the most America can do now — alongside its actions to provide humanitarian relief and keep ISIS at bay — is to support the political process with fair advice. Iraq’s existence as a nation hangs in the balance.
Zaid al-Ali, a legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010, is the author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy.