Time to Rethink US Policy in Iraq

Washington’s policy toward Iraq has been consistently focused on and committed to a unified Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. America has poured billions of dollars and thousands of lives into ensuring the survival of this artificial, unworkable state.

The question is: how much time and resources do you invest in something that does not work? By doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, US policy in Iraq is subscribing to Einstein’s definition of insanity. It is pouring more arms and financial aid into Baghdad, hoping for a different outcome only to prove its vision for the future of Iraq.

Approximately 5,000 Americans lost their lives in Iraq, most to stabilize the country after the invasion, and more than 32,000 were wounded. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province that accounted for about a third of the American deaths, fell to Islamic State (ISIS) fighters over the weekend, reversing what a US “surge” accomplished between 2006 and 2008.

The Iraq war has reportedly cost Washington $1.7 trillion. The cost of the current US-led airstrikes against ISIS is estimated at $7.6 million per day, according to the Pentagon. The total cost is estimated at over a billion dollars, and continues to escalate.

For the people of Iraq, the cost has been devastating. The Iraq Body Count website shows “138,861 – 157,544 documented civilian deaths from violence” and “total violent deaths including combatants is 215,000.” Other sources put the number at over a half-million civilian deaths, not to mention the destruction of the country’s infrastructure, worsening public services, and a surge in ethnic and sectarian hatred involving Iraq’s Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.

The whole idea of a unified Iraq has been established on a shaky and failed premise: if Iraq is united and strong Iran’s expansionism and influence would be reduced. However, a fake united Iraq has opened up more space for Tehran to consolidate its power in Iraq. The Islamic Republic has become stronger, not weaker.

Reinforcing Iraq’ unity by forcing Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to work for a goal they don’t believe in, has led to further polarization of society and extreme animosity toward an “Iraqi identity” that continues to be imposed on various ethnicities and sects.

This has opened a further vacuum for Tehran to exploit and consolidate its power. Depending on what serves its interests, Tehran variously steps in to mediate between Iraqi politicians. or polarizes them.

In the past, Iran’s influence was through politics. But now, it has evolved into military interference in Iraq. Tehran’s authority seems uncontested in calling the shots on behalf of the Iraqi government. Its veto on various prime ministers in Baghdad, economic interests, training, advising and equipping Shiite militias are just few examples of how Iran has penetrated into a united Iraq.

In addition, Iran has been able to expand and consolidate its influence in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and other places in the Middle East, despite the regional presence of strong states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. One would wonder why a “united Iraq” would be a majestic tool in checking Iran’s power beyond its borders.

Some may argue that it was the Islamic State (ISIS) that led to further consolidation of Tehran’s influence in the country. But in fact, the root cause dates back to Washington’s blind love and support for former Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki, especially after he lost to his rival Ayad Allawi in the 2010 election.

In that poll, the winner that represented various communities in Iraq was subordinated in favor of Maliki’s Shiite State of Law party. But an appropriate government was never formed, even though the Obama administration coaxed Kurds and Sunnis into Maliki’s government. The stubborn prime minister still retained his great power through controlling various ministries and other state institutions, especially related to security and defense. These became indispensable for him to crush Sunni politicians and steer the country to where it is today, where 60 nationa around the world are trying to cope with the mess.

Maliki’s policies marginalized the Sunnis and Kurds. It pushed the former towards more insurgency and led to the creation of groups like ISIS, while the latter have chosen the path of independence.

In spite of all this, Maliki enjoys immunity and was awarded the vice presidency last year. Some even argue that he controls the Shiite militias, known as Hashd al-Shaabi, and continues to cause trouble for the current government in Baghdad.

The Obama administration lost a golden opportunity to empower the Sunnis before the departure of US troops at the end of 2011. Instead, the Sunnis were left to the mercy of the Shiite-led government under Maliki. Had the Sunnis controlled their own territories via a local security force similar to that of the Kurdistan Regional Government or Iraqi army — which is composed mostly of Shiites — Anbar, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin could have been as stable as the north and south of the country.

Now, Washington seems to understand the importance of a Sunni force to get rid of ISIS, and to be later used as a stabilizing force. But in the face of a brutal force like ISIS, there is not much time left to recruit, train and arm fighters. Even if this is done, it is most likely to be unsuccessful in the short- and medium terms, given Baghdad’s continued meddling in the formation of such a force and hindering proper training and the provision of arms.

The only viable option is to bring the exiled Sunni leaders now in Erbil, the Gulf and elsewhere together; the Sunni provinces must be given a federal status; a serious local security force must be formed, together with a Sunni Regional Government and parliament. For the moment, the Sunni government can operate from Erbil until the Sunni force can wrest control from ISIS over their territories.

The Sunnis have made it clear that, after running the country for nine decades, they don’t want to be mercenaries to Baghdad. They want to be masters of their own fate, their own people and their own territories. This is understandable, and unless this happens, Iraq is most likely to remain caught in the vicious circle of violence for years to come.

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