Iraqi soldiers defending the country's second-largest city, Mosul, surrendered to Sunni insurgents after just four days of fighting last week. Their humiliating defeat was stunningly swift, but in some ways it was also a long time coming. Not because the country's Sunni-Shia split inevitably leads to violence. But because the seeds of Iraq's current chaos were planted years ago – 2006 to be precise – when Iraq's current Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, came to power.
Mr. al-Maliki shoulders a lot of the blame for Iraq's unravelling. He has consistently used his power to further his own political interests, including favouring fellow Shiites over minority Sunnis. For years now, Sunnis have felt shut out of Iraq's political process. Though they voted in record numbers in the 2010 election, winning a respectable number of seats in the Council of Representatives, their political demands are routinely ignored. Recent elections in April favoured mostly moderate candidates, but many of Iraq's Sunnis believed nothing would change.
Their disenfranchisement has enabled the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which began as an offshoot of al-Qaeda, to extend its reach. Over the past three years, ISIL's influence has grown, as its ranks swelled with foreign fighters. Today, it operates virtually unchecked across a swath of territory straddling Iraq and Syria, representing one of the biggest terrorist threats to the world today. It is one of the forces of disorder tearing Iraq apart, and which Mr. al-Maliki's policies inadvertently strengthened.
Some fault Washington for leaving Iraq prematurely. In fact, Mr. al-Maliki gave the U.S. no choice. He insisted Iraq could go it alone against any insurgent threat. He has proven himself wrong time and time again, and repeatedly had to come begging for weapons, military support and, now, air strikes to contain the insurgent threat. The sight of Iraqi troops stripping off their uniforms, throwing down their weapons and raising black flags over Mosul in the wake of their defeat underscores the depth of the Iraqi state's decline. It's impossible to know whether an ongoing presence of U.S. troops could have prevented this. What's absolutely certain, however, is that Mr. al-Maliki's rule has been nothing short of disastrous for his country and its people.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests in a recent report that Iraq today is in worse shape than it was under Saddam Hussein. Monthly tallies of civilian casualties are rising, approaching levels last seen in 2008. Iraq experiences more terrorist attacks than any other country in the world. The rule of law, as captured by World Bank figures, was better under Mr. Hussein, which is saying something. Life expectancy, access to education and other measures of human development have flatlined. Regardless of whether or not the world is willing, Iraq remains worthy of its help. Mr. al-Maliki – who presided over and largely orchestrated his country's demise – is not.