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There is good reason for the many calls for Nuri al-Maliki to quit his post as Iraq’s prime minister. In office for eight years, he has accumulated a great deal of power but delivered little to Iraq’s citizens. The country still lacks electricity, water, infrastructure, educational facilities, employment, and health care. While the press and civil society are freer than in many Arab-majority countries, Maliki has largely neutralized parliament and the courts. He controls many of the so-called independent institutions the Americans left behind, including Iraq’s central bank. The prime minister has campaigned and governed in a blatantly sectarian and increasingly authoritarian way, mobilizing Shi'i support and attacking (sometimes arresting) Sunni politicians.

But…Maliki is also the most popular single politician in Iraq, with over 700,000 personal preference votes in April’s election. His State of Law coalition won more than twice as many seats in parliament as its nearest competitor. His belligerence toward Sunnis is popular among Shi'a in the south and Baghdad. to step down, step aside, or otherwise quit are ignoring the clear message of the last election: most Shi'a want him to stay in place and crack down on a Sunni insurgency that is a potent mixture of Sunni Islamist extremism and Ba’thist nationalism. Compromising with that is not what people who identify as Shi'a and suffered under Saddam Hussein want.

So what is to be done?

I don’t know, but I’d prefer the decisions be made in Baghdad than in Washington. John McCain, who wants Maliki out, should not count for more than the voters of Najaf or Basra. President Obama has gone far enough by insisting on a cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic coalition as a condition for American assistance. That may be impossible with Maliki at the helm. But it is Iraqis, not Americans, who should tell Maliki that and make it stick. 

The prospects for Iraq are not good. As Peter Galbraith in Politico, the Kurds now have much of what they need and want to go for independence. Kirkuk, which they took over when the Iraqi Army fled, can provide Kurdistan with the revenue it needs to replace its percentage of Iraq’s oil revenue that Maliki has been withholding due to a dispute over accounting for the proceeds and over the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) decision to export its oil without Baghdad’s permission. I imagine the Americans will hold KRG President Barzani back from announcing the referendum on independence he has promised, but the day is coming. With Kirkuk and other “disputed territories” in hand, it is hard to imagine that the Kurds will want to stick around while Sunni Islamists and Ba’thists shoot it out with Maliki’s Shi'a supporters.

The big losers in all this are predictably the Sunnis, whose insurgent forces will not be able to take most of Baghdad even if they are successful on its western outskirts, which include Baghdad International as well as Abu Ghraib prison. The headlines if those are attacked will be big, but the strategic consequences less so. The Ba’thists and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will clash sooner or later. Even if they don’t, “Sunnistan”--Anbar, most of Nineveh, most of Salahuddin, parts of Baquba and Tamim as well as a few suburbs of Baghdad--may have lots of natural gas, but it is undeveloped. Ninety percent of Iraq’s current oil production would remain in Shi'i control, far away in the south. Once Kurdistan pulls out of Iraq, the Sunnis won’t want to stay in it, but they won’t have the resources or territory needed to establish a viable state.

Ironically, the Shi'a will, as they have the oil. But Tehran will not want an independent Kurdistan, as that would threaten Iran’s own territorial integrity, which includes the province of Eastern Kurdistan. A weak Iraq in which Iran exercises influence is what Tehran wants, not one that breaks up, threatens to redraw the map of the Levant, and gives birth to ISIS’s hoped-for Sunni caliphate.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Iraq is not lost so much as it is broken. A new political pact, with or without Maliki as prime minister, is what it needs. A state worth fighting for will take years to build.  Iraqis, not Americans, should be the prime movers in that process.