By Ashesh Rambachan ’17
A few years before the complete withdrawal of American forces at the end of 2011, Iraq was falling apart. In 2006-2008, engulfed in a bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shias, stories of sectarian cleansing poured out of Iraq. Shia militia, specifically the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr, would slaughter innocents and force entire neighborhoods to relocate. Satellite images, by studying changes in light pollution at night, would later show that entire neighborhoods of Sunnis abandoned their homes in an attempt to escape violence. In 2007 alone, al-Qaeda, composed largely of Sunnis from abroad, killed over 2000 civilians in a series of bombings across the country. According to the Iraq Body Count Project, an independent group based in both the US and UK, nearly 30,000 civilians lost their lives in 2006. In 2007, over 25,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. During this time, conditions were so dire in Iraq that Parag Khanna, senior fellow at the New America Foundation referred to the nation as “The Former Iraq” and as a “black hole” at the heart of the Middle East.
Amazingly, by 2010, conditions drastically improved. The United States responded to the wave of violence by “surging” troop levels to over 160,000. As suicide bombers claimed more and more innocent lives, Iraqis became disgusted by the brutality and turned away from terrorist organizations. This culminated in the famous rejection of al-Qaeda in Iraq led by Sunni leaders, now known as the “Anbar Awakening.” By 2010, the average number of civilian deaths per month plummeted to just over 340 innocents from a high of nearly 2500 civilian deaths per month in 2006. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, monthly attacks fell to an average of 358 attacks in the first quarter of 2011, the lowest rate since 2004. Along with a sharp reduction in violence, Iraqi security forces became less dependent on US forces and more able to respond to attacks on their own. By mid-2010, Iraqi army and police forces totaled over 650,000. It seemed as if the Iraqi people and armed forces were ready to stand up as the United States began to stand down. So, when the US Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government expired at the end of 2011 and the US withdrew all remaining combat forces, our hopes were high for Iraq’s future.
Sadly, it appears that the Iraqi people have been condemned to a Sisyphean fate. The enormous strides made in Iraq from 2008 to 2011 have begun to careen back down the mountain. As quickly as violence subsided after the US surge, it continues to skyrocket since the American withdrawal, undoing years of progress. Sectarian attacks are once again on the rise. Since April, nearly 5000 Iraqis have been killed in bombings across the nation. In the first quarter of 2013, on average, 804 attacks have occurred per month. To make matters worse, al-Qaeda is now claiming responsibility for the majority of bombings, which are becoming more intricate and complex. Suicide bombings are now coordinated to strike multiple locations across the country at the same time, a clear sign of increasing resources and manpower. What is most alarming is that the Iraqi armed forces are now unable to contain the violence. The Iraqi army withdrew from large towns, such as Falluja and Ramadi, in the largely Sunni province of Anbar. Meanwhile, in the northern city of Mosul, al Qaeda openly collects “protection money” from residents to fund its bloody operations.
What’s changed? Without the United States military forces, there is no third-party to mediate between Sunnis and Shias. Representing over 65% of Iraq’s population, Shias dominate Iraq’s federal government and have largely locked Iraqi Sunnis out of the upper echelons of power, while stacking the armed forces with Shias as well. Before 2003, under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Sunnis, while the minority, dominated all levels of government, meaning this role reversal for Sunnis is even more jarring. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is a Shia, is using the federal government to intimidate and arrest his Sunni rivals. At the end of 2011, the Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, forcing him to flee the nation. At the end of 2012, Iraq’s armed forces raided the home of Iraq’s Sunni finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, sparking Sunni protests across the nation’s southern provinces. On April 23, in an attempt to stamp out these protests, the Iraqi army surrounded and raided a camp of protestors in the city of al-Hawija, killing scores of innocents. The list of Sunni grievances against the Iraqi government goes on. As Sunnis feel more and more disenfranchised by the Iraqi government, they turn to other methods to make their voices from heard from street protests to outright violence. Ominously, the Sunni militias that laid their arms down during the Anbar Awakening are now beginning to rearm.
As sectarian tension continues to soar, Iraq’s geography only makes matters worse. Insurgents and terrorists frequently enter and exit Iraq via its western border with Syria. Al Qaeda groups operating in the two nations have merged their organizations and now operate under the name “The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.” Weapons and money flow from terrorist groups operating in Syria into the coffers of terrorist organizations operating in Iraq. To the west of Iraq lies Iran, the largest Shia nation in the world. During the sectarian civil war in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, Iran poured money and arms into Iraq, supporting radical Shia militias and their leaders, many of which are now part of the Iraqi government. Iran continues to have an enormous amount of influence in the Iraqi government, as its pressure and arm-twisting of Shia politicians may have played a large role in crafting the current Shia governing coalition after the 2010 Iraqi elections. As a result, many decisions made by the Iraqi government reek of Iranian influence. For example, Iraq allows Iran to use its airspace as it supports and resupplies the Shia regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is a distinct possibility that Nouri al-Maliki has the implicit support of Iran in his crackdown on Sunni opposition.
Rising violence in Iraq has no ready solution. Iraqi instability is deeply grounded in the broader chaos gripping the Middle East and the historic animosity and distrust between Shia and Sunni communities. Sectarian conflict in Iraq threatens the entire region and the world. Geographically, Iraq lies at the center of the Middle East and, as we have seen before, violence leads to enormous spillover effects on neighboring nations. Iraq now produces over 3 million barrels of oil per day, making it one of the largest oil producers in the world. Any disruption in Iraqi oil production would have a significant impact on global oil prices. It is in American interests to be proactive and help alleviate the sources of sectarian conflict in Iraq before things spiral out of control.
The United States still maintains a close relationship with the Iraqi government, even after the complete withdrawal of American forces. However, this close relationship does not mean that US officials ought to support the Iraqi government unconditionally. On his recent visit to the White House, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested US military assistance, specifically the provision of attack helicopters, hellfire missiles and reconnaissance drones. He even requested F-16 fighter jets. Al-Maliki argued that these tools are necessary to confront the uptick in violence and the increased strength of al Qaeda in Iraq. However, as we have seen, the cause of rising violence in Iraq is political. It is intimately tied to the perceived disenfranchisement of Iraqi Sunnis. F-16’s, Apache Helicopters and drones will, therefore, not effectively contain the violence.
It has been reported that President Obama has approved this request for military aid, a request that should have been denied. The United States should have used this as an opportunity to force Nouri al-Maliki to address the political grievances of Sunnis. The US had important leverage, but refused to use it. By quickly approving this request, US officials demonstrated that they continue to support Nouri al-Maliki, despite his authoritarian actions. This will only encourage his behavior of harassing and intimidating Iraqi Sunnis. If the pattern of intimidation and aggression between the two communities continues, Iraq will once again reclaim its title as the “black hole” in the heart of the Middle East. Sadly, by approving Iraq’s request for unnecessary military assistance, the US may have accelerated Iraq’s descent back into chaos.