Iraq is long in the rear view mirror, a distant and increasingly fading memory. We are reminded that on May 1st 2003 President George Bush declared, “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Fast-forward 6 years, and newly appointed President Obama declares that most combat troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by 2011. Sure enough, the last combat troops left the sovereignty of Iraq on December 18, 2011. The dust has settled, right? We can now safely assume that the Iraq chapter has ended, right?
As you probably can guess from my intentionally leading questions, things haven’t just worked themselves out now that we aren’t looking. Iraq may have fallen out of the public eye, but the problems there haven’t become any less visible. With the rise of the Arab spring and Syrian civil war, Iraq now faces catastrophic destabilization. The result could further engulf the Middle East into a regional sectarian conflict.
To understand the situation in Iraq, it is critical to understand the better part of the last two decades of Iraqi history. Iraq is a country comprised of mostly Shiites, which is a sect of Islam. The other thirty some odd percent of the country are Sunni Muslims. These are the two main factions in the Islamic world, and they are entrenched in a global power struggle. These two sects of Islam disagree fundamentally on certain religious beliefs, thus creating an irreconcilable ethnic conflict between the two groups of people. The Middle East is ethnically mixed, and the borders of Iraq contain both groups of people under one government. In the last two decades we have seen brutal regimes come to power and subjugate certain parts of the population. Nowhere is this truer than in Iraq, which has an institutional memory of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Baath Party that brutally persecuted the Shiites of Iraq. At the conclusion of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Saddam’s government had fallen. In its place was left a cavernous power vacuum, and an oncoming king of the hill battle between the different factions that inhabit Iraq.
After the displacement of Saddam Hussein, the country was shell-shocked and reactionary towards the new political climate. The Shiites that were violently subjugated during Saddam’s authoritarian rule were resolved in never allowing history to repeat itself. The Shiite populous already had a deep mistrust of the Sunnis; however, distrust of the Sunnis was at its height following the removal of Saddam. Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, feared retaliation and revenge by Shiite Muslims. Iraq quickly started falling into civil war, as the two major ethnic groups began attacking each other on the streets. As most on-the-ground reporters recall, there were Shiite and Sunni mosque bombings week after week perpetrated by the other. This was especially true in ethnically mixed neighborhoods, where guerrilla fighting became prevalent.
As a result of the epic instability of Iraq, the United States had a prolonged engagement in Iraq acting as the police force to prevent the country from ripping itself apart at the seams. Contrary to what conspiracy theorist might try to convey, the United States wasn’t there mining for oil. The United States military had its hands full just trying to contain the violence on the streets of cities and prevent a full-scale civil war from breaking out.
One of the greatest challenges faced in Iraq was forming a functioning government that actually represented its people. Iraq is a microcosm of the Middle East in general, in which the ruling party usually is not representative of the people they govern. As a result, the governments are more easily corrupted by power since they aren’t held accountable by the citizens. This can be seen in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, just to name a few. This makes oppression inevitable, and as a result the ethnic conflicts are perpetuated, as there is always a ready scapegoat. For the better part of the first decade in the twenty first century, the United States tried to establish a fairly represented government in Iraq. A government in which both Shiites and Sunnis get a say, in contrast to Saddam’s authoritarian rule. The task was proven to be immeasurably difficult as the deep seated ethnic differences bled into politics, culminating in an impasse between the two parties. The Iraqi government was crippled by paralysis, unable to even govern itself, which enticed greater extremist actions. Elections were subject to suicide bombings, while government buildings were hijacked and were under constant mortar fire.
After several years of effort, in late 2009, Iraq started stabilizing. The government was elected, and had Shiite majority and a sizable Sunni minority that was willing to cooperate to move the country forward. Iraq finally had a functioning government that was able to run the country by itself. The two most critical outcomes were that the two parties in Iraq were finally working together, and that the government could keep security in the country. The Iraqi forces were able to subdue the ethnic violence, and allow the country to finally move forward. So on December 18, 2011, the United States withdrew all of its combat troops from Iraq.
However, recent events in the Middle East have severely shaken up the atmosphere in the region. The Syrian civil war pits the Bassad’s Shiite government against a revolting Sunni populous. Syria is also very ethnically diverse, a population that consists of seventy four percent Sunni Muslims, twelve percent Alawite, and ten percent Christian, which is almost an exact inverse of the ethnic population in Iraq. The Alawite is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which is in a constant ethnic struggle with the Sunni sect. The Sunni majority in Syria loudly voices their disdain of the oppression of the Alawite oligarchy. The current state of affairs in Syria is a civil war between the Sunni majority, the Alawites, and the Kurds in the north. The rhetoric on both sides is charged with calls of sectarian violence, which has lead to conflicts and shootouts in ethnically mixed neighborhoods. Thus, the rebel forces against Assad’s regime are unable to form a unified force, due to constant internal sectarian conflicts.
Syria’s Civil War has drawn in many neighboring states; however, the states immediately on Syria’s border have played the most important roles. Iraq sits just due east of Syria and shares an elongated border with the country. Iraq has finally been able to establish a stable and proportionately elected government that represents all aspects of its population. Iraq is in a fragile state, where the people are just beginning to build a cohesive nation after almost a decade of sectarian violence. The Shiites remember the terror and horror of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, and there is great distrust of the Sunnis in Iraq. As recently as last summer, there have been bombings targeting Shiite mosques by Sunni Muslims. Sectarian violence is beginning to creep back into Iraq, and has caused Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has close ties with Iran, to deviate from his moderate policies. Jackson Diehl excellently summarizes in his article “Lines in the Sand” how the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood endangers the balance of power in Iraq. “Syria, however, has spooked Maliki…A Sunni Syria endangers what Maliki views as the central outcome of the Iraq War, which is the political preeminence of Shiites in Baghdad.”
A destabilized Iraq would have immediate ramifications for the region. The United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars and military man-hours subduing ethnic violence in Iraq over the past decade, and has now withdrawn out of the country as things begin to calm. However, if Iraq slips back into turmoil, the US will have two very unpleasant choices to confront. The United States could reengage militarily in Iraq in order to stop the country from slipping into civil war. However, this option is unlikely, as it would be political suicide for President Obama, who would flip-flop on his promise to leave the Iraq theatre. The more likely outcome is that the United States will abstain from intervening into Iraq, and will allow Prime Minister Maliki to handle the conflicts. However, Maliki’s recent policies have been to detain and imprison his Sunni political opposition, including the Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. As the current Iraq government becomes increasingly more nervous of a Sunni takeover in Syria, it becomes more tyrannical and polarized towards its own people. Iraq’s size and proximity to other nations in the Middle East ensures that if Iraq were to fall into civil war, it would enflame the Middle East in sectarian conflict. The result would be a bloody civil wars erupting across the Middle East, as the different ethnic groups begin to hash out political control of nations through violence.