Two things at least are clear about that woebegone colonial creation that is the country named Iraq. One is that its very existence is threatened by a savage army of Sunni jihadists whose avowed goal is to create a caliphate across the Arab world. The other is that if it is to have any chance of establishing itself as a stable and reasonably democratic state, Iraq desperately needs a new prime minister. With Monday’s designation for the post of Haider al-Abadi, deputy speaker of parliament, that second requirement is on the way to being met.
At this stage, almost anybody would be preferable to the outgoing premier, Nouri al-Maliki – in office since 2006, and who instead of trying to bring together Iraq’s three main groups of majority Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, increasingly ruled as a sectarian warlord, pushing Sunnis to the margins and governing by clique and corruption. Immediately after Mr Abadi was chosen, Mr Maliki spoke of a “violation of the constitution”, indicating that he was prepared even to use force to stay in power.
His tone now appears to be softening, judged by his statement today, urging the military, which he controls, to stay out of the domestic political crisis. The seeming change of heart undoubtedly reflects not just his abandonment by President Obama, who called the potential handover “a promising step”, but also the blessing conferred on Mr Abadi by Iran, the protective power of Shia Iraq. That both Washington and Tehran, rivals rendered uneasy bedfellows by the common fight against the extremist Sunni fanaticism of Isis, can agree on this point only underscores Mr Maliki’s isolation.
The crucial question now is, can Mr Abadi succeed? He is a Shia who comes from the same party as Mr Maliki, but has a more distinguished political pedigree. He belongs to a political family known for its opposition to Saddam Hussein, and took a doctorate in electrical engineering in Britain after leaving Iraq in 1977. Reportedly, two of his brothers were murdered by Saddam’s regime. More important, although a Shia with considerable ties to Iran, he seems to have support among the Sunni and Kurd minorities, and has explicitly warned against the dangers of Iraq descending into sectarian conflict.
These elements offer grounds for encouragement. But the task facing Mr Abadi is mountainous. Above all, time is not on his side. Forming a new government, which he has to present to parliament within 30 days, is never a simple task in Iraq. It must be hoped that competing factions will be ready to compromise, given the urgency of a crisis whose long-term solution depends on a genuinely inclusive government. Mr Abadi is widely praised for his diplomatic acumen and negotiating skills. He will surely need every last ounce of these qualities.
But the outcome of the political struggle in Baghdad has implications far beyond Iraq’s borders, and not least in America. Isis, which now calls itself the Islamic State, must be eradicated, before it has an opportunity to mount the deadly attacks against the West that al-Qa’ida managed from its former stronghold in Afghanistan. The US air strikes ordered by Mr Obama may hold the line but are unlikely alone to win the war.
The best way of doing so is a true government of national unity, inspiring the Iraqi army to defend its country against a terrible foe. If that proves impossible, for all Mr Obama’s determination to avoid putting US boots on the ground in a new war in Iraq, he may be forced to order precisely that. The stakes for Mr Abadi, for a beleaguered US President, and for the Middle East in general, could scarcely be higher.