Friday, May 31, 2013

'Abd al-Karim Qasim and Authoritarianism in Iraq

Qasim asleep in his Ministry of Defense office Jan. 1963
Recently, I published an article, "Abd al-Karim Qasim, Sectarian Identities and the Rise of Corporatism in Iraq," in the Kufa Review 1/2 (Winter 2013), which is edited by my colleagues, Hassan Nadhem and Abbas Kadhim, and sponsored by Kufa University.  Qasim continues to be revered by many Iraqis and there is no doubt that he left a positive legacy in terms of his concerns for social justice and the well-being of the Iraqi people.  But what was his legacy for the building of democracy in Iraq?

Qasim was an Iraqi general who acquired his fame for the effective manner in which he fought Zionist forces in Palestine during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as an officer in the Iraqi army.  A latecomer to the Iraqi Free Officers movement - which emulated its counterpart organization in Egypt under Muhammad Najib (Neguib) and Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser) - Qasim was chosen to become the titular head of the uprising that overthrew the Hashimite monarchy on July 14, 1958.

Subsequent to taking control of the July 14 Revolution, Qasim refused to join Egypt and Syria as part of the United Arab Republic.  Infuriating a large segment of the Free Officers who were Pan-Arabists, Qasim now became known as "traitor" to Iraq's "Pan-Arab destiny" and a "Shu'ubi."

The latter insult meant that, due to his mixed Shiite and Sunni parentage, Qasim was really supportive of those who were loyal to neighboring (Shiite) Iran, namely Iraq's Shiite majority population.  In this narrative, Qasim was the modern embodiment of the so-called "Shu'ubiya" movement that had purportedly been responsible for the Abbasid Empire's fall to the Mongols in 1258 CE and the subsequent destruction of Iraq (even though there is no historical evidence whatsoever to support this argument).

This post is less concerned with the ensuing struggle that developed after July 1958 between Pan-Arabist forces and Qasim (discussed in detail in my  Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq), than with the impact of his legacy for contemporary efforts not only to build democracy in Iraq but throughout the Arab world.   For all his good deeds, Qasim was a dictator - a benign dictator, but a dictator nonetheless.

An Iraqi carrying an image of 'Abd al-Karim Qasim during a recent commemoration of the July 1958 Revolution 
Many apologists for Qasim argue that he was anti-sectarian, that he appointed high quality technocrats, such as Economics Minister Muhammad Hadid, to government posts regardless of their sect or ethnic background, and that he was not corrupt.  After Qasim was overthrown by Iraq's first Ba'thist regime and summarily executed on February 9, 1963,  the new regime was unable to find any evidence  of corrupt behavior on his part.

In fact, what the Ba'th discovered was that Qasim donated the monies he received from his 3 salaries - as  a retired army office, as prime minister, and as defense minister - to the poor.  While he had a government residence, he was known to be a workaholic who spent most of time in a simple apartment in the defense ministry which had a desk, couch and some small tables.  He owned no civilian clothing, only his military uniforms.

Qasim had a significant impact on Iraqi society through obtaining higher royalty payments from foreign companies for Iraqi oil though nationalizing the oil industry, implementing land reform, dramatically expanding the education system, and providing housing for the urban poor of Baghdad (i.e., building Revolution City - Madinat al-Thawra).  Qasim was the first Iraqi leader to treat the Kurds with political respect when he announced at the beginning of the revolution that Arabs and Kurds in Iraq were "partners" (shuruka').

Qasim's regime was one of the first in the region to promote women's rights.  It promugated a very progressive personal status law in 1959, and appointed the first woman minister to a cabinet post in Iraq, Nuziha al-Dulaymi, as Minister of Municipalities.

Nevertheless, Qasim closed newspapers, banned political parties and refused to allow democratic elections.  He adopted the title of "supreme leader" (al-za'im al-awhad), and promoted the fiction that he was politically neutral (fawq al-tayyarat al-siyasiya).  The result of his actions was the degradation of political discourse.  Politics was reduced to binaries of good versus evil, revolutionaries versus reactionaries, nationalist heroes versus the agents of imperialism.

Qasim, like Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir in Egypt, the Ba'thists in Syria, the National Liberation Front in Algeria, Libya under Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libyan Peoples' Jamahiriya, Sudan under Ja'far al-Numayri, Tunisia under Zin al-Din Bin Ali, and Yemen under Abdallah al-Sallal and later Ali Abdallah Salih, came to power with the intention of improving the lives of the less fortunate citizens in their respective countries.  However, all these leaders and parties forced an "authoritarian bargain" on their citizen-subjects: give up your individual freedoms and right of political dissent in return for state subsidies of food and education and the promise of government employment.

Clearly, the authoritarian bargain did not lead to a happy outcome.  Saddam Husayn was a disaster for Iraq, as was Qaddafi for Libya, and Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad for Syria.  Sudan and Algeria continue to ruled by corrupt, one-party dictatorial regimes.  In Egypt, after presidential and parliamentary elections, Muslim Brotherhood control appears headed in a more authoritarian direction.  Only in Tunisia and Yemen, and to a much lesser extent in Iraq, do we see any progress towards implementing a meaningful democratic transition.

What I call "corporatism" in my article on 'Abd al-Karim Qasim connotes the use of a dangerous organic metaphor - the idea of the nation as a "body politic" - and one that has fascist overtones.  Once the nation is understood as an analogue to the human body, any dissent can be seen as threatening its health, and thus inherently destructive and hence treasonous.  Corporatism is an idea that under-girds authoritarian rule and represses critical thinking.

This type of thinking is found in much Islamist thinking today, which is also grounded in a corporatist unity that suppresses cultural and political pluralism and the norms of tolerance and dissent.  In this sense, the secular nationalism of the Arab one-party state has much in common with its Islamist successors.  In both instances, the state tries to create a restrictive realm of discourse that precludes democratic alternatives.

Qasim stands apart from the political leaders of the other Arab countries mentioned above.  He was not bloodthirsty, he truly cared for the Iraq people, and he implemented many reforms, even if they were not fully implemented while he was still alive.  His sincerity, honesty, and devotion to improving the quality of life for ordinary Iraqis has created much nostalgia for his rule.  While I was discussing Qasim and showing his photograph during a recent power point presentation at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, an American official, who had just returned from Iraq, called out: "So that's who that is - I saw his picture all over southern Iraq!"

Still, in recognizing Qasim's continued popularity and in our rush to remember his positive contributions, we should also remember the dark side of his rule.  Immediately after the July 1958 coup d'etat , Iraq's democratic politicians and parties were willing to work with him to hold democratic elections and create a polity based on parliamentary rule.  Instead, Qasim decided to exclude them and keep all political power for himself. 

Qasim's failure to use the overthrow of the Hashimite monarchy to build a truly pluralistic, democratic political system has to be recognized not only as an important turning point in the history of modern Iraq, but as a great opportunity lost.  What is needed in the Middle East (as in all countries) is a state that provides social justice for its citizens while vigorously defending individual liberty, human rights and the rule of law.  Promoting one without the other is a recipe for national instability and conflict

Friday, May 24, 2013

Can oil save Iraq?

Bill Keller's recently published NY Times Op-Ed, "Syria is not Iraq," conspicuously omits one of the  main differences between the two countries, namely Iraq's enormous hydrocarbon wealth - both oil and  natural gas.  While the Western media's has focused almost exclusively on sectarianism, there has been little analysis of how oil, rather than sectarian identities, shape Iraqi politics.  What is the role of oil in Iraqi politics?  Can oil offset Iraq's sectarian cleavages to the point where competing political elites have an incentive to hold Iraq together rather than allow the county to fragment?

Two key considerations need to be taken into account.  First, Iraq not only has enormous proven reserves of oil and natural gas, but huge areas of the country which have still not been explored.  Indeed, many energy analysts think 70% of Iraq's oil reserves have yet to be discovered.  According to a study by the US Energy Information Agency, Iraq possesses the fifth largest proven reserves of oil and the twelfth largest natural gas reserves.  At the beginning  of 2013, Iraq had 141 billion bbls of proven oil reserves and 112 trillion cubic ft (Tcf) of natural gas.

Second, 90% of Iraq's GDP and 80% of its foreign currency reserves are derived from the sale of hydrocarbons in the world market.   Not only does control of oil and natural gas production translate into immense political power, but it is the Iraqi state's only real source of funds. Iraq's competing elites - in its three main ethnocofessional communities - are fully aware that it would constitute political suicide to "kill the goose that lays the Golden Egg."  In other words, in the elite's view, sectarian conflict cannot be allowed to destroy Iraq's only major source of wealth.

Iraq is unique among rentier states in that control over the country's hydrocarbon wealth is divided among two sets of elites - the current Shiite dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the Kurdish leadership under President Masoud Barzani in the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Arbil.

Following the overthrow of Saddam Husayn in 2003, Iraq's Sunni Arab population lamented the lack of hydrocarbon resources in the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle comprising al-Anbar, Ninawa and Salah-al-Din provinces.  However, the discovery of large amounts of natural gas in the Okaz (Ukaz) field in western Anbar Province along the border with Syria and Jordan means that, if Iraq's three Sunni Arab provinces were to form an autonomous region as allowed by the constitution, they too would have access to extensive hydrocarbon wealth.

Hydrocarbon wealth is intricately intertwined with sectarian politics.  It is well known that Iraq ranks 175 of 180 in Transparency International's list of the world's most corrupt countries.  Both in Baghdad and in the KRG, corruption and nepotism are a political way of life.  Ministries function less as institutions to provide social and economic services than as fonts of patronage which is distributed according to power and influence of political parties and the cliques which control them.

The caustic rhetoric and vitriol emanating from Baghdad and Arbil belie the shared interest that Arab and Kurdish elites have in assuring the continued uninterrupted production of oil (and increasingly natural gas, most of which until recently was lost through flaring).  Both the Arab political elite in Baghdad and its Kurdish counterpart in the KRG are highly adverse to armed conflict which threatens domestic production and has the potential to scare away foreign investors.

The increased attacks on oil pipelines this past winter and spring by radical forces associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and revanchist insurgent groups tied to the former Ba'th Party present a direct challenge not only to Nuri al-Maliki's government, but to the KRG as well.  If the area along the so-called Green Line that separates Iraq's Arab and Kurdish populations were to come under the control of  radical elements (namely a coalition of al-Qa'ida and neo-Ba'thist insurgents), then attacks could be launched on Kurdish communities outside the control of the KRG and on oil facilities around Kirkuk, which sits astride a large oil field and which is claimed by the KRG,

For the Maliki government, the spread of a radical insurgency in Sunni Arab areas threatens to seriously disrupt the production, refining and export of oil.  Equally important to Iraq, as it seeks to replace rusty pipelines and upgrade its production and refining facilities, is its need to attract foreign experts and technicians.  If Iraq degenerates into civil war and the security situation worsens, many oil companies and oil technology firms will refuse to work in Iraq.

Although no agreement has been reached on a Hydrocarbon Law which has been waiting to be approved since 2008, Baghdad and Arbil have been able to achieve a modus vivendi on the production of oil and the distribution of oil revenues.  However, as the KRG has sought to gain greater control over its oil sector since 2010, there has been increased push back from Baghdad.

From the Maliki government's perspective, the KRG should not have the right to sign contracts with foreign oil firms.  Baghdad's insistence on retaining control over contracts reflects three fears.  First, Baghdad does not want the KRG to deviate from the current arrangement whereby all oil revenues go to the central government and then are distributed to the KRG according to its percentage of the population (generously defined as 17%, but more likely closer to 13% of Iraq's population).

Second, the Maliki government fears that greater autonomy in the hydrocarbon sector might encourage the KRG to declare independence.  The possibility of Iraq's 3 Kurdish provinces declaring an independent state has become more real, in Maliki's view, as the KRG has developed closer political and economic ties with Turkey.  Third, Maliki does not want to be seen as the Prime Minister of only an Arab state as this will open him up to charges that he is weak and cannot defend Iraq's territorial integrity.

The KRG has benefited from more than $6 billion of Turkish investments.  In May 2012, it signed an agreement to build oil pipelines directly from the KRG to Turkey without central government approval.  In response to Baghdad's attacks, Arbil has pointed to the central government's failure to create a legal framework for foreign investments, thereby impeding the KRG's ability to develop its own hydrocarbon sector.

Although the KRG has drawn closer to Turkey in recent years, it does not want to become too dependent on the Turks.  An independent and land-locked Kurdistan would be completely at the mercy of Turkey.  It would also find itself cut off from valuable capital investments from the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to the south.  While much of the Kurdish elite seek an independent state, in their view it is better to be tied to a weak Arab state headquartered in Baghdad - one in which they still exert considerable influence - than dependent on an economic and military powerhouse in the form of Turkey

In protest of Maliki's refusal to negotiate the KRG's demands for changes in national oil policy and the escalating conflict with Iraq's Arab Sunnis, Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurdish Trade Minister, Khayrullah Hasan Babaker, and the entire Kurdish parliamentary delegation returned to the KRG in protest of the prime minister's policies.Meanwhile, the KRG sent its Pesh Merga forces to the contested city of Kirkuk where the Iraqi army was having difficulties controlling massive Sunni Arab protests,

Quickly, Maliki changed his political tune. The escalating rhetoric declined and Arbil sent a high level delegation to Baghdad in early May. After meeting with the Kurdish delegation, Maliki indicated that they would work to resolve their mutual differences. He also indicated in an interview with al-Hayat newspaper that he was making an effort to develop better relations with the two main Sunni Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (see Abdallah Nasir al-'Utaybi, "A Shi'i in the 'Office' is better than a Sunni in Turkey," al-Hayat, May 13, 2013).

At the same time, a variety of prominent politicians have worked to tamp down sectarian tensions by stressing national unity and the desire of all Iraqis to create a democratic state. Both Sunni Speaker of the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) Usama al-Nujayfi and Foreign Minister Zebari have played to Shi'i sentiments by evoking the assassination in August of 2003 of the highly respected Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the former leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), now known as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.

Nujayfi noted that 2013 is the 10th anniversary of his death while Zebari said that his killing was a "historical deviation" in Iraq which was  intended to "light the fires of inter-communal killing (al-fitna)."  Nujayfi called upon Iraq's political leaders to "throw their petty and small differences into the waste basket," while Zebari added that Iraqis need to "reassert our commitment to our national initiatives and our decision to establish our peaceful coexistence in a parliamentary and federal democracy."

In his turn, Ammar al-Hakim, the current leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, responded by saying that, "while the responsibility for protecting the nation is not the army's duty alone," Iraq cannot live"by the sword alone."  Rather it is the "commitment to values and beliefs the will protect the nation from those who seek to divide it and from the purveyors of civil strife (tujjar al-fitna)." (al-Hayat, May 12, 2013)

Bill Keller is correct.  Iraq is not Syria. Nuri al-Maliki's recent efforts  to make amends with the Kurds and to assure Saudi Arabia and Egypt that he is not trying to marginalize Iraq's Sunni Arabs, as well the aforementioned comments of important politicians, point to the desire of Iraq's political elite not to let sectarian cleavages consume the country and lead to civil war.

Nuri al-Maliki is no Bashar al-Asad. He has neither the political clout nor military power to suppress those who oppose his rule.  While the Iraqi political elite has many venal and rapacious elements, it is a much different animal than its Syrian counterpart.  Further, unlike Syria, external powers are not playing a destabilizing role in Iraq. Neither Iran nor the United States - the two most influential outside forces - want to see Iraq devolve into civil war.

Maliki will most likely be forced to make amends with the Sunni Arab community.  His war of words with the Kurds will continue and his government will have to fend off challenges from members of his own Shi'i political elite, such as the Sadrists, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Badr Organization.  Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, the head of a splinter faction of Maliki's Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiya), waits in the wings, ready to pick up the pieces should his former colleague fail.

At the end of the day, Maliki has access to a powerful weapon not found in Bashar al-Asad's arsenal - large amounts of revenues derived from the sale of oil and natural gas.  To keep that weapon intact, Maliki cannot afford to let the current civil strife spin out of control.  Thus he will no doubt soon move to defuse many of the sectarian tensions that have been stirred up by his ill-advised and would-be authoritarian policies.

Never the statesman, Maliki will attempt to defuse but not try to find lasting solutions to the political, economic and security problems currently facing Iraq.  Politically, we can expect Iraq to continue to "muddle through" as intra-elite and inter-communal conflict persists, but at a less system challenging level.

Some analysts see the emergence of Sunni, Shi'i and Kurdish mini-states along the line of the Sunni, Alawite and Kurdish mini-states projected to be formed in Syria as its civil war has reached a stalemate.  However, those who see the breakup of Iraq along sectarian lines should take time out to put on another set of conceptual eyeglasses, those that view Iraq through the prism of hydrocarbon wealth.  For those who gamble, I would place my bet on Iraq maintaining its territorial unity.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Iraq crisis: will the US try to remove Nuri al-Maliki?

Protest poster saying "No to sectarianism"
As the crisis in Iraq spreads, calls for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to leave office have grown as well.  A May 2nd New York Times Op-Ed, "Why Maliki must go" argued that the US and its European allies should put pressure on al-Maliki to resign.  Is there any reason to expect that this scenario will become a reality?  What would the Iraqi government look like were Maliki to be deposed?

First, there is little chance that the US will bring pressure to bear on Maliki to resign.  Since its withdrawal of troops in December 2011, US influence in Iraq has dramatically declined. Part of the reason for this decline is not just the US troop withdrawal, but the decision of the Obama administration to put Iraq on the back burner in terms of its policy priorities.

Second, the US does not want to open a "second front" with Iran.  It is already discovered that, the severe sanctions imposed on Iran notwithstanding, Iran has still not indicated any willingness to curtail its development of a so-called nuclear energy program, which experts believe is actually intended to produce a nuclear arsenal.

The US had an option to hold Maliki's feet to the fire in 2010 when his State of Law Coalition narrowly lost the March national parliament elections.  According to the Iraqi constitution, Ayad Allawi, the head of the al-Iraqiya Coalition, which won 91 seats to State of Law's 89 seats, should have been asked to form a new government.  The US and Iran tacitly cooperated to make sure that Allawi was not allowed that opportunity.

Whether Allawi would have been able to form a government is beside the point.  The US looked the other way as Maliki used a variety of dubious manuevers to maintain the post of prime minister.  Instead, the US tried to have Maliki create a new National Council for Security Affairs that Allawi would head.  Maliki promised to create the new government agency and give its a wide range of powers over domestic security and national defenses.  However, once he saw that he would be not ousted, he reneged on all his promises.

The US cooperated with Iran to keep Teheran's man in Baghdad in power.  It was following the timeless US policy of  supporting strongmen rather than acceding to the wishes of the populace at large.  One would think that the US would have learned from its experiences with the Shah in Iran, Mubarak in Egypt, Bin Ali in Tiunisa, Qaddafi in Libya and Salih in Yemen that supporting dictators to achieve "stability" inevitably backfires.

There is a yet another reason why the US will not suppoort efforts to depose Nuri al-Maliki: arms sales.  As one of the world's largest producers of oil (and soon natural gas as well), Iraq's resource base will grow dramatically in the near future.  The US has already sold Iraq F-16 fighter aircraft and is helping it rebuild its navy as well.  The US hopes that Amercian businesses will find a myraid of investment opportunities in Iraq as well.

Forcing Maliki from power would anger Iran which would step up its support for Shiite militias in the south of the country.  Iran would try to make life miserable for any of Maliki's potential replacements.  This would be especially true if that political actor were someone who leaned towards the United States.

Authoritarian legacies also play a part in the reluctance to replace Maliki, not just on the part of the US but domestically in Iraq as well.  Saddam Husayn was careful to execute any politician who he perceived as a possible future threat to his power, including his boyhood friend Adnan Khayrallah, who became popular as defense minister during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.  There were few politicians with any national credibility still alive when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.

The Bush administration erred when it brought a slew of Iraqi expatriate politicians back to Iraq in 2003, including Nuri al-Maliki.  These politcians which included the likes of Ahmad Chalabi, the incredibly corrupt head of the Iraqi National Congress, and Abd al-Aziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, did not retunr to Iraq with any civic agendas.  They were and still are, as Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael refer to them, "carpetbaggers."

Turning to the current crisis, many Iraqis who oppose Maliki do not want to see him removed from power bercasue they fear even more instability.  This is especially true in light of the spillover of the Syrian civil war in Iraq's so-called "Sunni  Arab Triangle" in the north west and north central region of the country.

A number of tribal leaders in al-Anbar and Ninawa provinces see Maliki as a strongman who will prevent al-Qa'ida and its arm, the Islamic State of Iraq, and the so-called Naqshibandi Army (jaysh al-Naqshibandiya), led by the former number two leader in Iraq's Ba'th Party, Izzat al-Duri, from reestablishing themselves in the Sunni Triangle.  These shaykhs remember the extent to which radical forces encroached on their economic and political prerogatives during the sectarian violence of 2004-2008.

Indeed yesterday, the Acting (Sunni) Defense Minister, Sa'dun al-Dulaymi, attending a memorial for Iraqi army troops recently killed in al-Anbar and Ninawa provinces, called upon local tribal leaders not to allow sectarian militias to reestablish themselves in Sunni areas indicating that that would lead to chaos (al-fitna) and a catastrophe (al-karitha).  Clearly, Maliki is using al-Dulaymi to swing tribal leaders to support his government rather than see a return to the highly destructive violence that followed the toppling of Saddam Husayn's regime in 2003 (see the Iraqi al-Sabah newspaper, May 5, 2013).

al-Dulaymi also attacked the convening of an Istanbul "Iraqi Spring" conference of anti-Maliki dissidents, arguing that the conference constitutes an interference by Turkey in Iraq's internal affairs.  In his statement, the Iraq Defense Minister again called attention to Turkey's attacks on Iraqi territory in pursuit of Kurdish PKK guerrillas who operate from the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Maliki's tactics are to "divide and conquer" in Iraq';s Sunni heartland by setting powerful tribal leaders against Sunni demonstrators who feel Maliki has marginalized them from political power and government employment, while accusing Turkey for being responsible for fomenting the crisis presenting facing Iraq.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has encouraged Maliki to negotiate with the Kurds to solve their problems over oil and the "disputed territories" along Iraq's Green Line which separates Arabs and Kurds in northeastern Iraq.  Indeed, Maliki's efforts to engage the Kurds is probably only a temporary move designed to further isolate his Sunni Arab opponents by preventing a Kurdish-Sunni Arab alliance.  Maliki cannot come to terms with the Kurdish leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) because he would then be seen as ceding control to the Kurds of Iraq's oil resources in the north.

The recent negotiations between a Kurdish delegation from Arbil and Maliki's circle has smoothed over for the moment the contentious disputes between  the Baghdad and the KRG.  But Iraq's fragmented political elite has been down this road before and there is little doubt that the KRG's move to closer economic and political ties with Turkey presages more conflict in the future. 

Indeed, if Ankara is able to resolve its conflict with the PKK, and Turkey's large Kurdish minority feels its interests are finally being met, the temptation for the KRG to declare independence might be overwhelming, especially if Maliki and the Baghdad political elite do not curtail their hostile approach to Iraq's Kurdish population.  With Turkey's "Kurdish problem" under control, Ankara would be far less apt to see a KRG declaration of independence as threatening Turkey's national interests.

Maliki's calculus with regard to the KRG is much more shot-term in scope.  He sees any agreement that gives in to Kurdish demands for more control over their oil resources and any concessions on the disputed territories along the so-called Green Line as an invitation to his opponents to try and force him from office.  In his view, giving in to the Kurds would undermine his nationalist credentials and make him appear as only the leader of Arab Iraq.

The "wild card" in the crisis is the powerful Shiite populist, Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the Sadrist Trend which holds 40 seats in parliament.  Over the past year, Sadr has been in the forefront of trying to impose term limits on the post of prime minister and other top political offices.  Sadr has always tried to maintain close ties to the Sunni community as a way of bolstering his nationalist credentials.  While he came out and criticized Israel's attacks on Syria yesterday, he still has not weighed in on whether he truly wants Maliki ousted as prime minister. 

In short, the US will not be seeking to oust Nuri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister.  The US has few options available to it in trying to solve the current crisis in Iraq.  It can urge Maliki to limit the use of force in confronting angry Sunni Arab demonstrators, cease accusing them all of being agents for al-Qa'ida and other radical forces, and give their political leaders greater representation among his cabinet ministers and in top posts in the state bureaucracy.

At the end of the day, the US has to realize that Maliki is yet another example of poor foreign policy decision-making.  The time to have dealt with Maliki was 2010 when there was the opportunity to strike a blow for democracy and help support Iraq's efforts at implementing a democratic transition.   Instead, the US helped ensconce an authoritarian ruler who has progressively alienated almost all segments of Iraqi society.

At the end of the day, Maliki still has an ace in the hole.  He can continue to use his plentiful reserves of  oil wealth to coopt just enough of his opponents, including Sunni Arabs such as his defense minister, thereby keeping those enemies who will not play by his rules of the game off balance.  For the US, the chickens have come home to roost,  As the saying goes, "you reap what you sow."