April 7, 2014

Sectarian violence in Iraq increases - just as predicted

As Iraqis prepare for the upcoming parliamentary elections, violence has increased to a greater level than what we have seen over the last few months. This current level of violence has not been seen since the bloody Sunni-Shi'a sectarian fighting of 2006-2007, which ended with "the surge" - a short-term increase in the number of American combat troops in the country. Since the beginning of 2014, almost 2,500 people have been killed, and over 400,000 displaced.

The violence has not been unexpected. Following the failure of the Obama Administration to secure a suitable Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would have allowed the presence of American combat troops in the country beyond 2011 to confront just this eventuality, it was obvious to anyone with a modicum of experience in the region that it was only a matter of time before Iraq was once again torn apart by sectarian violence. Shortly after the departure of American forces in late 2011 - premature in my opinion - the violence began, slowly at first, and steadily increased.

The violence was not hard to predict.

As the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government - a factor of the size of their majority in the country - took over almost all elements of political power in the country, it was no surprise that the pent-up anger at how the Shi'a were treated under the Sunni-dominated regime of former President Saddam Husayn led to a marginalization of Sunni influence in the new administration. No matter how bad the economy and conditions were in the country, it was always worse in the Sunni areas. The Sunnis bristled at this treatment, and at some point, groups of Sunnis decided they had no choice but to take up arms against what they regard as an Iranian-directed government.

The Iranian role

As a consequence of the numerical advantage enjoyed by the Shi'a in Iraq, it was logical that they would dominate any democratically elected government. It is also logical to expect that the new government would be friendly towards Iran - Iran has emerged as the de facto leader - and self-appointed protector - of the region's Shi'a Muslims. Although there is a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a U.S. diplomatic mission to an insecure Iraq without the backing of American combat forces leaves us with almost no influence in the country.

The election of Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister also fit nicely into Iran's plans for Iraq. Known derisively as "Nuri al-Irani" (Nuri the Iranian), he has constantly made pro-Iranian decisions that are a slap in the face of the United States. For example, shortly after the departure of American forces, al-Maliki permitted Iranian Air Force transport aircraft and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) charter aircraft to overfly Iraqi airspace in their resupply flights for Hizballah, and also now resupply of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Iran has sent combat units to advise, train and participate with Syrian troops in the ongoing civil war. If were not for Hizballah and IRGC fighters, the Syrian regime may have fallen in 2012. Also, at Iranian insistence, Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi'a militias have shown up on the battlefields of Syria.

As many analysts have feared - this one included - we are seeing the emergence of a "Shi'a crescent" extending from Hizballah in Lebanon, to the 'Alawi-dominated Ba'th Party in Syria, through Nuri al-Maliki's pro-Iranian government in Iraq, and ending with the mullahs in Iran.

Spillover from Syria

Again, without the presence of American combat units in Iraq, there has been a resurgence in jihadist violence, much of it tied to the fighting in Syria. A group affiliated with al-Qa'idah emerged, calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This group began attacking elements of the Iraqi government in al-Anbar province, including the violence-prone cities of al-Fallujah and al-Ramadi. True to its name, ISIS also moved into northeastern and north-central Syria, where it attempted to set up Islamic enclaves ruled by Sharia' courts meting out harsh Islamic punishments.

ISIS's goal is to establish an Islamic state in the areas now occupied by both Iraq and Syria, eliminating the border and the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Unfortunately, this has diverted the Syrian opposition, mainly the Free Syrian Army, from its fight against the Bashar al-Asad regime and started internal battles among the rebels. Although ISIS has lost some ground, it remains a force in part of Syria, and still diverts the secular opposition's efforts from the real fight.

It is the presence of ISIS and another jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front) that has caused Western governments from providing lethal arms to the rebels for fear that the sophisticated weaponry the rebels need - especially anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles - will fall into the hands of the jihadists. It is a reasonable concern.

The failed SOFA

As I have stated, I believe most of Iraq's current problems are the result of the premature departure of American combat units in late 2011. Without a SOFA, it was impossible for American troops to remain in the country. SOFAs are complex agreements that require detailed negotiations.

Many analysts (count me as one) believe the Obama Administration did not want the negotiations for a SOFA to be successful, thereby giving the Administration the excuse it was looking for to withdraw American forces. The Americans left the table and withdrew their troops, leaving unprepared Iraqi military and security forces to fend for themselves.

Mr Obama has taken credit for "ending the war in Iraq." Sorry, Mr President, all you did was end our involvement in the war. The fighting continues, which I believe is the result of your failure to WIN the war in Iraq. Thousands of Iraqis, and now Syrians, are paying the price.