Earlier in the week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Iraq's Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, claiming that al-Hashemi was running his own murderous hit squad. It's worth noting here that this is Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister trying to arrest Iraq's Sunni Vice President. In response, al-Hashemi fled to the northern city of Erbil, de facto capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, where he was granted protection by Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani.
So as of Thursday morning, Iraq's whole political system was in a three-sided stand-off broken down along ethnic/sectarian lines. Part of the reason that this kind of situation could even happen in the first place is that Iraq's national government has obviously taken a lesson from the US Congress and developed an amazing ability to avoid making tough decisions. The final status of Kurdistan within the Iraqi federal state has gone unresolved for years. The main sticking point is over oil revenues from the oil rich north, which the Kurds think should stay in their autonomous region and the Sunnis/Shiites think should be distributed to the country at-large. Some oil companies have signed contracts to develop resources in the north with the Kurdish government in Erbil, which the federal government in Baghdad hasn't decided yet whether to honor or not. And then there's the city of Kirkuk, which sits in the middle of Iraq's northern oil patch, that the Kurds say was historically Kurdish and should thus belong to them, but Iraq's Arabs say was repopulated by Saddam Hussein with Shiites and Sunnis and so should not.
Of course the situation involving Iraq's Vice President has sparked claims from the Republican critics in the United States that the possible pending collapse of Iraq is all President Obama's fault for withdrawing US troops too quickly and too soon. This line of argument ignores the fact that Pres. Obama's decision was motivated by the government of Iraq's refusal to sign an extension of the Status of Forces Agreement (or SOFA) that exempted US troops from prosecution under Iraqi law for any perceived misdeeds (you can only imagine how Obama's Republican critics would have howled if he had left US troops in Iraq without this protection). A larger question for the critics though is if after eight years Iraq's government was so fragile it would start to crack just days after the US withdrew from the country, when then would it be ready to govern? In another five years? Ten? Would the United States need a massive and permanent presence in Iraq to play referee to the feuding ethnic and sectarian groups, and is this what they're advocating?
The United States went to war in Iraq for dubious motives to remove the government of Saddam Hussein. Our plan for the “day after” Saddam’s fall was to install Ahmed Chalabi, a shifty Iraqi ex-pat, as the new leader, a plan the Iraqis balked at. It is clear that in the eight years following the rejection of Chalabi, the US never was able to come up with a Plan B other than to try to graft a federal system of government onto three groups with long and contentious histories, a plan that now shows signs, not surprisingly, of coming dramatically apart.