The headlines and pundits alike are spouting the traditional clichés about Iraq: Baghdad is falling. Iraq is splitting into three parts. Shias and Sunnis have been fighting for a thousand years.
We heard many of the same claims during the heightened sectarian conflict in Iraq from 2005 to 2007. But it’s useful to remember that Iraq has been around in one form or another for 7,000 years. Much of what’s happened recently is a direct result of U.S. policy and regional tumult, not ancient history.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq, intentionally or not, exacerbated the country’s sectarian divide by installing a Shiite government little interested in sectarian reconciliation with the previously dominant minority Sunnis or the increasingly autonomous Iraqi Kurds. But that’s not all.
Shortly after toppling Saddam Hussein’s government, the United States dismantled the professional Iraqi Army, leaving many Sunnis to conclude that they had no place in the emerging political order. During the so-called “Anbar Awakening,” U.S. forces armed and paid Sunni tribes to stop supporting al-Qaeda, thereby ensuring their financial and military dependency but failing to ingratiate them to Iraq’s Shiite government. Above all, the United States richly supplied the Iraqi security forces with equipment and training, but failed to secure a political arrangement in which they would serve the whole nation of Iraq. When they melted away under assault from ISIS, they left millions of dollars worth of U.S.-supplied equipment in terrorist hands.
The current situation in Iraq has been exacerbated by the war in Syria, which many of us warned would happen. The initially nonviolent revolution was hijacked by the Saudis and their Gulf State allies, who have shelled out billions of dollars for weapons for Islamic jihadists. Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups became larger and better equipped than the true revolutionaries, who were non-sectarian, inclusive, and democratic. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which originated in Iraq during the U.S. occupation, was one of these groups. The ranks of ISIS have swelled from an influx of discontented Middle Easterners and several thousand Westerners.
ISIS is a murderous and merciless group. Its forces have summarily executed hundreds if not thousands of people and committed countless terrorist acts against civilians—especially Shiites, Christians, and Kurds. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have already fled their towns out of fear of ISIS, as well as concern about an indiscriminate response from the Iraqi government.
Allied with ISIS are former Baathists and military leaders under Saddam Hussein, tribal leaders, and other disaffected Sunnis. Each component of this group has legitimate complaints against the government. The Maliki government openly favors Shiites, provides little or no assistance to Anbar province, and has brutally suppressed dissent in Sunni regions. Both ISIS and the secular Baathists are using this widespread discontent for their own purposes—ISIS to build a new extremist “caliphate” and the former Baathists to recreate a Saddam-style, pro-Sunni regime complete with mass graves.
The current problem of Iraq will not be resolved by sending more U.S. troops, drones, or jets to Iraq. A U.S. military presence would only bring back the same problems associated with the invasion and occupation of the country.
The United States can do something, however. It can stop the Saudis and the Gulf states from bankrolling the terrorists in Iraq and Syria. It can independently disrupt ISIS’s communications and supply of weapons. It can provide humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. It can continue to pressure Nouri al-Maliki or his replacement to bring together the people of Iraq through an inclusive government. It can insist that any future government of Iraq root out corruption and nepotism.
Iraq has been around for a long time. And despite the current unrest, splitting the country into sectarian regions would be a disaster.
The United States has played the sectarian card in the past. It should resist playing that card now by providing money or arms or boots on the ground in service of a fundamentally compromised Iraqi government.