The decision of Nouri al-Maliki to step down as Iraq’s prime minister and to endorse Haider al-Abadi as his successor are positive developments for that country and for the United States.
It is useful to recall the religious and ethnic mix of Iraq to understand the situation. Shiites constitute roughly 60 percent of the population, Sunnis 20 percent and Kurds (who are also Sunni by faith) 20 percent. The Kurds name the largely symbolic president, who is now Fuad Masum. The Shiites won the most recent elections in 2014 and have the right to choose the prime minister. If a Shiite prime minister is wise, he will include the Sunnis in government, something Mr. Maliki failed to do during his eight years in power. It is particularly important that the prime minister do so, since the Sunnis ruled Iraq from independence in 1932 until the U.S. invasion and occupation in 2003.
The real danger was that, if Mr. Maliki and Mr. Abadi, each with his own armed Shiite militia, had contested the top office, then the Islamic State, the Sunni group that is taking more and more territory by military force, would have seized Baghdad, the capital. That would have produced a serious problem for the United States and particularly its embassy, which might have required a military evacuation.
In the meantime, the danger to the Yazidi religious minority, who were threatened by IS forces in the Sinjar mountains, has been determined by an investigatory U.S. military mission to have mostly disappeared as the Yazidi slipped away to safer ground. The United States had provided them humanitarian relief and also military protection through aircraft and drone attacks on IS forces.
With the threat to the Yazidis removed, the next important step for President Barack Obama will be to withdraw the hundreds of U.S. troops he sent to Iraq to protect them. It will then be up to the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds to work out the future of their country without U.S. military intervention on behalf of any party involved.