By Amin Saikal
January 06, 2014
Iraq is tearing itself apart. The Shia-dominated government of prime minister Nouri al Maliki is in disarray and has lost control over much of the capital, Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country. Iraq has become a critical part of a regional arena for a Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict, with Tehran supporting some powerful Shia groups and Riyadh backing the cause of the Sunnis, who have felt marginalised and discriminated under Maliki's leadership. If the current trend continues, Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity is in serious jeopardy.
The United States, backed by two willing allies (Britain and Australia), invaded Iraq in March 2003. Its widely professed goal was to turn the country into a stable and enduring democracy, from where Washington could change the whole region into the image of the United States. It rapidly toppled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, but in the process it also demolished the Iraqi state.
Despite losing some 4,000 troops, not to mention many more injured and diseased in the theatre of the war, and spending $1 trillion on its war efforts, the US was never able to fill the power vacuum that its initial actions created. It finally withdrew its forces by the end of 2011, leaving a legacy of violent factionalism, sectarianism, criminality and insecurity behind, with Iraqis killing one another not in hundreds but thousands every year. Close to 8,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013 alone. In the same year, Iraq experienced bomb blasts, suicide bombings, targeted assassinations, kidnappings and small and large-scale robberies every week, with Baghdad bearing the brunt.
Today, nobody feels any safer than they did under Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The country has become a fertile ground for extremist groups, backed by outside actors in pursuit of conflicting regional interests. Al Qaeda, which had no presence in Iraq prior to the American invasion, now has an important niche there.
The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS) has secured a strong base in the Iraqi western province of Anbar - home to most of Iraq's 20 per cent Sunni minority and where many of their tribal leaders have made a common cause with ISIS against the Maliki government. The ISIS and its supporters have lately succeeded in taking control of one of Anbar's key cities, Fallujah, which was the scene of bloody fighting during the US occupation. They have also made a serious thrust into another important city of the province, Ramadi, creating a massive challenge to the central government. This comes on top of the Kurds (who, like the Sunnis, form another 20 percent of the Iraqi population) having managed to build an extensively autonomous entity in northern Iraq. In many ways, a process of Balkanisation of Iraq appears to be well underway.
The Iraqi predicament, together with the Syrian conflict and its spill-over into neighbouring countries, Lebanon in particular, has confronted the Obama administration with serious quandaries as to what to do. Yet it is not in a position to do much; it no longer has any determining influence in Iraq. It is shunned by powerful elements amongst both the Sunnis and Shias. Tehran and Riyadh are today the main players, with Ankara keeping a close eye on the Iraqi Kurds to ensure that they do not declare an independent state of their own that could help Turkey's substantial Kurdish minority to achieve a similar goal.
Former US president George W Bush and his two international allies at the time, Britain's Tony Blair and Australia's John Howard, must now admit that their invasion of Iraq was totally misguided and detrimental to not only the Iraqi people, but also their own countries' interests. They may continue to pride themselves on having overthrown Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, but that has proved to be a very small gain compared to the terrible and bloody legacy that they have created. They refused at the time to listen to the voices of reasons against invading Iraq, and have remained defiant to date. Yet, they should be held accountable for making the Iraqi people pay a high price for their misadventure.
Given the similarities between Afghanistan and Iraq, the former could follow the latter's path after the withdrawal of most of the US and allied troops from the country by the end of this year. It is important that the US and its partners take note of what has happened to Iraq, and do whatever is required to prevent Afghanistan from experiencing the Iraqi fate.
The Iraqi situation is dire. Three measures are urgently required in order to save the country from further self-destruction. The first is for Maliki's leadership to become more inclusive and accommodating of the Sunnis, with a resolve to build a consociational system of governance, where all Iraqi groups are proportionally represented, with none having a veto power. The second is that the Iraqi leaders reach a national consensus before the parliamentary elections due in April. The third is that the United Nations Secretary-General convenes a regional conference, with the backing of the five permanent members of the Security Council, to secure an understanding among Iraq's neighbours, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular, over the country.
However, tragically none of these measures may come soon enough to alleviate the suffering of a majority of the Iraqi people who are totally despairing about their future.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iraq.