A prominent Arab intellectual has written an important book that asks a critical question: Who is really responsible for Iraq's desperate plight?

His answer is already provoking hot debate on Arab social media because he doesn't blame colonialism or the West. Instead, the noted Iraqi scholar and human-rights activist Kanan Makiya points the finger squarely at the Iraqi elite.

"The U.S. did everything wrong in Iraq it could possibly do, but this book is about what the Iraqis did wrong," he told me. "You can point the finger at the Americans, but this is our failure; we own it." He reserves special blame for the (U.S.-backed) Shiite exiles who returned from abroad.

Makiya's novel (he chose this form because he thought it would illuminate deeper truths) is called The Rope, a reference to the noose that hanged Saddam Hussein. The novel challenges Iraqis to look inward rather than blaming outsiders (it doesn't mince words on U.S. mistakes, but offers another explanation for what went wrong).

The author is no stranger to controversy. From a prominent Iraqi Shiite family, he studied in the United States, became a U.S. citizen, and taught at Brandeis University. One of the first to expose Hussein's genocidal brutality toward his own people, Makiya wrote Cruelty and Silence in 1992, taking Arabs to task for not criticizing the abuses of Mideast dictators, even as they decried America and Israel.

He doesn't apologize for helping the Bush administration shape the case for overthrowing Hussein. Instead, his novel details the failures of those Iraqi opposition leaders who returned from exile, especially the Shiites, whom Washington put in charge of a transition government in Baghdad.

What Makiya does apologize for, in the Arabic version of his book, is his role in legitimizing some of those leaders, including the Bush administration favorite Ahmed Chalabi. They threw away their chance to build a new Iraq, he told me. They abandoned the very "idea of Iraq" and an Iraqi nation.

Instead they opted for "the politics of victimhood." Although the Shiite majority had been repressed by Hussein, its new politicians and militia leaders, once empowered, became sectarian oppressors of Sunnis, often egged on and aided by Iran. They also organized competing militias that are still fighting each other for power.

The novel, based on real events, centers on the murder of a Shiite cleric in the holy Shiite city of Najaf. The protagonist, a young Shiite from Najaf who comes of age during the Iraq war, stumbles on the body and struggles to learn the truth about the killing. Ultimately, he discovers that the murder was ordered by a rival cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, in whose militia he has been fighting.

This murder was a preview of the power struggles that would convulse the Shiite community. For Makiya, it symbolizes all that went wrong.

For neither the victim nor his adversary was an ordinary cleric. I knew the murdered man, Abdel-Majid al-Khoei, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei, who escaped to London after the first Gulf War. Like his father, he believed in the quietist school of Shiite Islam, which separated mosque and state.

The younger Khoei supported the U.S. invasion as the only means to remove Hussein. He told me in 2002 that he hoped Iraqi Shiites could show how Islam could coexist with a democratic constitutional state. He hoped to mediate between U.S. forces and senior Shiite clergy.

So Sayyid Majid, as he was known, agreed to return to Najaf with the Americans at the beginning of the 2003 invasion. I was in touch with him by satellite phone after he landed and he was optimistic. Days later, he was dragged out of a holy shrine and brutally slashed to death on the orders of Sadr, who espouses an activist philosophy strikingly different from the Khoeis. Sadr's militia warred with U.S. forces, and was famous for slaughtering Sunnis.

What is so important about this book is its demand that Arabs look inward to find the reasons for postwar failure in Iraq (and the failure of the Arab Spring). It is insufficient to blame everything on the Iraq war - or on borders drawn by colonial powers.

As artificial as those external borders once were, says Makiya, they became more real over time, and "we would be completely lost if we tried to change them." He argues in a powerful "personal note" at the end of the book that the Shiite exiles who took over Iraq needed to cobble together a new, post-authoritarian "Iraqi identity." Instead they opted for revenge against Sunnis, and fought each other.

The only major Iraqi figure who tried to rise above the bloodshed, ironically, was the Grand Ayatollah Khoei's protégé and successor, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who urged Shiites to avoid violence and tried to stop sectarian bloodshed. But Sistani is 90 years old, and his philosophy is being challenged both by the populist Sadr and by Iran.

Makiya's book is a challenge to Iraqis - many of whom are fed up with their corrupt leaders - to stop blaming the West and confront the officials who are destroying their country. He believes that only some form of federalism - that rises above a strict Shiite-Sunni divide - can save the country.

The novel couldn't be more timely. Last week Sadr's followers invaded the Shiite-led government "green zone" for the second time in a month, purportedly protesting against corruption but really seeking more power.

As Sayyid Majid's death makes clear, Iraqi Shiites must first stop killing one another before the country can emerge from chaos. That is the harsh truth The Rope wants Iraqis to face.

trubin@phillynews.com