By Hamad Al Thunayyan
Rai Insights Contributor
Washington D.C.: Thirteen years have passed since the 2003 U.S. “shock and awe” military campaign on Iraq. The U.S. military operation Iraqi Freedom might be over, but the Iraqis are still in shock and awe. Around 165,000 civilians died, and the country is still embroiled in a bloody sectarian war. More recently, the U.S. mustered the different militias to fight ISIS in the on-going battle of Fallujah. And when these militias are not attacking ISIS, different groups are fighting each other. What went wrong?
The answer lies in the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in the first place and the manner in which Iraqi matters were handled in the post-Saddam Iraq by the U.S. and successive Iraqi governments.
Consider ISIS. What is happening in Iraq and its neighbor, Syria, cannot be understood without examining the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which facilitated the outbreak of what is known today as ISIS (or Daesh). The U.S. government supported the de-Baathification policy that marginalized the Sunni minority in Iraq. This policy was often carried out by the Iraqi government for personal and political ends and was carried out in a chaotic fashion. Nearly 400,000 military conscripts and officials were dismissed in one day. Not surprisingly, many found their way to the countless insurgency groups, including ISIS. And even Paul Bremer, the U.S. military governor of Iraq, admitted his regret to hand the implementation of this policy to the Iraqi government.
“Many of the Shiite parliament members often say that our voter base is concentrated between Basra and Baghdad [so] why would we direct resources to Ramadi, Mosul, and Fallujah, where people there could turn against us at any moment,” a former prominent Shiite member of the Iraqi parliament told me. The U.S. policy after the 2003 war helped create a sectarian government in Iraq, and the consecutive Iraqi governments chose to alienate particular Sunni factions. The result is a polarized sectarian society, ready and eager to be recruited by sectarian militias and insurgent groups and to oppress each other, based on religious identity.
Several academic studies suggest there is a link between ethnic/religious grouping and civil wars. Political and economic grievances form through group comparison, which inevitably leads to violent collective action through mobilization (See Cederman et al. 2011). The preferences of Maliki’s government in Iraq were formed based on religious Shia grounds. Even though grouping, based on religious identity in Iraq, is a less costly device to solve collective action problems, I do not think that it explains why the country has been going through turmoil for the past 13 years. Saying that religious grouping is not the key driver for conflict in Iraq only means that differences in religious identity alone do not lead to conflict. It does not mean religious identity is not important in formulating preferences, hence, solving the collective action problem. If religious identity was a casual factor, then why did sectarian feuds in Iraq only become apparent after 2003?
Institutions matter. Iraq’s problem is related to the structure of its political system. When the political system is structured based on religious identity, we should not expect the politicians not to project this identity and even take advantage of it to remain in power. The 34 years of Saddam’s rule tore Iraqi society long before the Americans got there. This is not because Saddam supported Salafism or Al-Qaeda as some suggest, but rather, because it is hard to impose democracy on a society that lived through long years of dictatorship with no civic culture.
It took the Taif agreement in Saudi Arabia to end the decades-long Lebanese civil war and reach national reconciliation between the parties. The political scene does not look great in Lebanon today, and they have been without a president for almost 2 years, but internal violence has ceased since 1989. The failed Lebanese politics looks like Switzerland, compared to Iraq.
For Iraq, however, Iran has not been playing a constructive role in bringing everyone together in an inclusive government. Tehran’s main policy in the region has been based on empowering different militias and weakening the central government within the country. The Iranians have been doing this in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and even Syria. In their view, this is the best approach to maintain their influence in the region. They are wrong. This policy will turn to be harmful to Tehran in the long-term. The Iranian government must think long and hard about how their regional policies are reshaping the attitudes of their neighbors.
To fix Iraq, the political system must be changed. The Abadi-led government is less likely to be more inclusive. This is not because they are unwilling. They are simply incapable under the current circumstances. Regional countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, can help push for peace in Iraq and the whole region if they come to terms on a comprehensive security framework and move beyond the current zero-sum game.
Hamad Althunayyan is a PhD Researcher in Political Science at University of Maryland- College Park. He earned his BA in Political Science from Virginia Commonwealth University and MA in International Relations from American University – Washington, DC. He wrote several articles on Gulf security, Iran, and U.S. role in the region.