Al-Maliki’s exit, US air power offer hope for Iraq

Republicans and Democrats have blamed each other’s presidents – George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively – for the chaos in Iraq and the onslaught of the murderous Islamic State rebels.

There’s blame enough to go around. But the culprit closest to the crime is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who set the stage for this year’s disasters by turning what had been a power-sharing government into a Shiite dominion. Allah be praised for al-Malaki’s ouster this week.

With him gone, his successor, Haidar al-Ibadi, might be able to cobble together more support from the Sunni Arabs and Kurds who’d been antagonized by al-Maliki’s push to create a Shiite regime. That’s assuming al-Ibadi really wants to; in Iraq, it’s wise not to bet the farm on a promising development.

Al-Maliki himself looked like a good guy when he came to power in 2006. In recent years, though, he has practically begged the Sunnis to rebel by forcing their leaders from government posts and sometimes arresting them.

Few imagined that the rebellion would take a form as horrifying as the Islamic State – a fanatical Islamist militia that exults in summary massacres of non-Sunnis, enslavement of non-Sunni women and the display of non-Sunni heads on poles. Comparisons to the Nazis should never be made lightly, but Hitler’s minions at least waited a few years before proceeding from tyranny to genocide.

By now, even President Obama must realize it was a mistake to wash his hands of Iraq after ending U.S. combat operations there in 2010. Obama’s lack of engagement led al-Maliki to believe he had a free hand to govern as he saw fit.

One of al-Maliki’s brilliant ideas was to hoard American weaponry that should have been transferred to Kurds defending their homeland in the north. As a result, the Kurds have little heavy weaponry to counter the Islamic State’s advances. The Islamic State, in contrast, is well armed with American equipment that fell into its hands when al-Maliki’s army fled the battlefields.

The Islamic State’s atrocities and Haidar al-Ibadi’s arrival have given Obama an opening to re-engage, and he’s making the right noises: “The United States stands ready to support a government that addresses the needs and grievances of all Iraqi people,” he said Monday.

The air strikes and supply drops he has authorized have been limited in scope, but they have helped rescue Iraqi Christians and Yazidis facing massacre by the Islamists. Long term, U.S. air power could scatter and destroy the rebels’ artillery and armor. Obama is also now directly arming the Kurds, long-time U.S. allies. They faced down Saddam Hussein’s forces with American air support; properly equipped, they could do the same against the Islamic State’s improvised army.

As for a revamped Iraqi government capable of uniting the country’s factions, it’s a pretty thought. Democracy was always a long shot in Iraq. Right now, we’d settle for anything better than the Islamic State.