Over the past few days, the rebel onslaught in Iraq has slowed. It was predictable that Baghdad and surrounding cities, populated by a majority of Shiite, would be a much tougher target for the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement than were Sunni-dominated cities such as Fallujah, Mosul and Tal Afar.
But this is hardly a reason we can relax.
Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war and risks becoming the very kind of sanctuary for al-Qaeda and affiliates that we have worked so hard to prevent since 9/11. Bold measures are needed — for our own security.
President Obama rightly argued last week that we need to think about new military options for Iraq and additional forms of U.S. assistance. He also correctly called for political reforms by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose increasingly sectarian, autocratic and divisive rule is — along with spillover effects from the Syrian civil war — the main cause of this meltdown.
There should be little doubt that the United States handed Iraq a viable chance to govern itself by the end of 2011. Iraq has largely squandered that chance.
Maliki should go. He is seen by most Sunnis, and Kurds, as a Shiite chauvinist who no longer has their interests at heart. They could be right. In any case, these perceptions will be very hard to change, eight years into the Iraqi prime minister’s rule.
Alas, Maliki just won a third term as prime minister, and it might be too late to get him to step down.
As Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack has argued, perhaps the best we can do is to advocate for a new Iraqi constitutional amendment that would prevent future Iraqi leaders from serving more than two terms.
If Maliki does stay on, at a minimum we need to insist on a few common-sense reforms before providing any stepped-up aid or direct, if limited, U.S. involvement:
The Iraqi ministries of defense and interior need to be restored to their proper roles in commanding Iraqi security forces in the field, rather than having their roles trumped by the prime minister’s direct intervention.
Maliki’s legal witch hunts against political opponents need to be stopped.
Finally, some of the good Sunni generals who have been removed from their military positions of late need to be put back in office.
But before settling for the above, we should try to persuade Maliki to step down. He has become so associated with misrule and with favoritism for his own clique of Shiite leaders that it is highly doubtful Sunnis, or Kurds, can ever trust him again.
In that light, the core problem in the recent attacks will persist. Sunni nationalists will continue to work with the ISIS extremists because they fear and loathe Maliki even more than al-Qaeda.
List of successors
Plausible leaders include Sunnis such as former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, Kurds such as current Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and various Shiites as well.
No matter who takes the prime minister position, an ethnically balanced national security leadership is required, including minister of defense, interior as well as national security adviser.
It should be noted that creation of such a diverse team probably works at direct odds with Iran’s interests. As such, any possible Washington collaboration with Tehran on this subject should be handled very warily.
The new agenda of the revamped team could include a decision, as enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution, to allow Sunnis the right to hold a referendum in coming years on the possible creation of a federal region in which they would have considerable autonomy, as the Kurds enjoy in Kurdistan.
But first things first: Iraq needs a new team at the top. If aiming for a new leader proves too much, at a minimum Maliki needs to form a government of national unity and restore proper divisions of power within his government.
This opinion originally appeared in USA Today.