The US invasion of Iraq (March 2003) determined that country’s future. Its days as a unified state are numbered. In fact, that we even still refer to Iraq as though its shape and body politic are intact and functional, ignores the hard realities on the ground.
The Kurdish lands in the country’s north have been technically independent since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. The only reason Kurdish Iraq has not declared its formal independence is partly out of deference to those states which supported greater Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, and partly out of fear that neighbouring countries with large and restive Kurdish populations such as Syria, Turkey and Iran, might turn their guns on any nascent Kurdish independent state. But let there be no illusion, Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, controls nothing within the boundaries of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). That effectively takes out a third of ‘Iraq’s’ national territory, oil and gas resources and population.
De-Ba’athification post-2003 saw the minority Sunni Arab population (the political and social elite of Iraq and before that, Mesopotamia) disenfranchised. Iraqi soldiers in the Iraqi military were purged for being ‘Sunni’ which represented the former ‘oppressor’ clique of Iraq’s majority Shia Arab population.
With this purge went most of the talent in the Iraqi military. The rebuilding of Iraq’s post-Saddam Army, now staffed by predominantly Shia Iraqi officers, transformed this institution to become the oppressor of the former Sunni rulers. Many Shia Iraqis believe this to be the right to a historic wrong. Many Shia Iraqis believe that preventing the re-emergence of Sunni Iraqis in senior national leadership roles is a hedge against the possibility of another Sunni-led dictatorship.
Added to this heady mix of internal transformation and subsequent dysfunction and sectarian conflict were the foreign policy objectives of external powers. The United States wanted Iraq’s newly enfranchised oppressed majority (i.e. the Iraqi Shia) to become secular – a forgiving and tolerant exemplar of multi-ethnic/multi-sectarian democracy in the Middle East. The Iranians wanted, if not to cleave off and incorporate Shia Iraq into Iran proper, at least to a) destabilise America’s presence in Iraq and b) become the primary political beneficiary in Baghdad and among the Iraqi Shia, effectively carving out a clearly defined sphere of influence. Tehran accomplished most of points a) and b), leaving it in a very powerful strategic position in spite of international embargoes and sanctions. This latter development troubled and infuriated Saudi Arabia. As leader of the Muslim faith, owing to its custodianship of two of Islam’s holiest places, Mecca and Medina, the House of Saud subscribing as it does to a strong interpretation of Sunni Islam – Wahhabism – holds Shia and associated interpretations of Islam in open contempt. They did not view political developments in Baghdad positively. As a new repressive and ‘sectarian-conscious’ Iraqi Shia body politic grew from the ashes of the Iraqi Sunni dictatorship; from Riyadh’s perspective, this represented a strategic loss of a useful and relatively predictable pawn in the region, and a strong hedge against the civilisational power of Iran.
Syria’s civil war in 2011 essentially sealed the fate of modern Iraq. Disenfranchised and despondent Sunni Iraqis, forced from their political stronghold, Baghdad, consolidated their grip on traditional lands in the resource-poor Sunni Iraqi stronghold of Anbar Province. Much of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s military and security personnel, hostile to the new Iraqi Shia power-brokers in Baghdad, honed their martial prowess on the battlefields of neighbouring Syria, fighting for Sunni Syrian resistance to the minority rule of the Alawite (a Shia offshoot) Republican Dynasty of the al-Assad family – the Syrian government, an ally of the Iranians. In a Darwinian struggle, many Sunni Syrian militias and resistance groups, with embedded Sunni Iraqi former Saddam-era soldiers and officers, fought it out with the Syrian military and from this struggle emerged ISIL or Daesh, and, out of Daesh’s string of military victories against Assad’s forces and rival Sunni Syrian militias, arose the Islamic State (I.S.). Today, the area under the influence of the Islamic State incorporates a large part of eastern Syria and western Iraq. While not recognised by the international community, the unwillingness of the West to directly involve itself in a military campaign (US Air Force airstrikes notwithstanding) to roll back and break the spine of the Islamic State, has allowed the idea of I.S. to fester and grow in the Middle East and in the minds of those wanting to support this entity. By doing so the West has granted I.S. a ‘de facto’ existence. But after a failed decade-long US-led counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, should this fight be a Western fight?
Then came the May 17 I.S. victory over the Shia Iraqi military and its capture of the western Iraqi town of Ramadi, some 100 kilometres from Baghdad.
It is true that there appears to be no way that I.S. can capture Baghdad, a densely populated city of 7.2 million, with complex demographics and urban terrain. But if the contemporary Iraqi military suffers any more major defeats at the hands of I.S. forces, and is seen to be incapable of holding on to the state’s remaining territory, it seems likely that Iran will be dragged more openly into this conflict. Already supporting Iraqi Shia authorities in Baghdad, Iran’s rehabilitation in the eyes of the international community is paving the way for Iran to act as an open American if not Western bulwark against I.S.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi might well be thought of by the West as a less hostile leader to a unified multi-confessional/multi-ethnic Iraq than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. But the politics of Baghdad is the politics of revenge and retribution. Al-Abadi is one man and his strength and ruthlessness lack the guile of a Saddam Hussein or a Nouri al-Maliki.
Baghdad is no longer the strong centre it once was. It is merely a big city sitting in a melting pot of chaos on the banks of the Tigris River. Sectarianism, the beast unleashed on Iraq by ignorant and misguided American policy in 2003, has come home to roost. As the old saying goes, you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and modern Iraq cannot be reconstituted under current conditions. It can, however, serve as a bloody battleground where the sectarian faith of Sunni and Shia, stoked by external interests, can hammer out some form of new regional order. But that is a story for another time, the outcome of which is highly uncertain.