The “war of choice” — the title bestowed on the American engagement in Iraq by President Obama — ended in December, having all but escaped the public consciousness. But the conflict in a country where thousands of American lives and billions of American dollars were sacrificed to help build, is far from over.
The risk of civil war in Iraq has never been higher, but it’s precisely for that reason that the U.S. must increase its engagement to mediate a potentially existential political crisis, and counter growing Iranian influence in Iraq.
While the bloodshed in neighboring Syria and revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere get the lion’s share of media coverage, Iraq’s “unnoticed” civil unrest has been climbing in recent weeks and grows more fragile (and violent) by the day. Tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs in the south and tribal west of the country have taken to streets, clashing with Iraqi soldiers trying to contain them and deepening the rift between Iraq’s fractured communities.
The mostly Sunni protesters are demanding increased concessions for greater protection against what many view as sectarian motivated infringement on their rights from the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose coalition has governed the country since 2008. The most recent rounds of protest were caused by the arrest in December of the bodyguards of the country’s Sunni Finance Minister, Rafei al-Essawi, in a move interpreted by many Sunni Arabs as a politically motivated crackdown by Maliki against his opponents. Dozens of protesters have been killed in subsequent demonstrations in Ramadi, Fallujah, Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk, among other cities.
Tensions previously reached a boiling point over the summer, when the independence-minded leaders of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country made a push to oust Maliki. Kurdistan Regional President, Massoud Barzani, partnered with prominent Sunni and Shi'ite leaders such as former Prime Minister Ayyad Alawi and his Iraqqiya bloc, as well as prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Issues between Baghdad and the Kurds included moves taken by Maliki that left many in the north fearing that he was consolidating power. The move to hold a no-confidence vote in the parliament ultimately failed, leaving the Kurds to continue to pursue a path of energy independence much to the dismay of Baghdad. Tensions have peaked in the time since, culminating in a near-armed conflict between Kurdish armed forces and troops from the federal government in areas that are disputed between the two sides.
The internal tensions are also, of course, intricately connected with broader regional crises, most critical being the Syrian civil war and Iran. Iraqi Kurds have been training, arming, and providing other forms of assistance to their Syrian Kurd counterparts, while the ambivalence of the federal government, split between joining the growing ranks calling for Bashar al-Assad’s removal and allaying Iranian calls to side with fellow Shi’ites. The inability, or unwillingness, of the Iraqi government to enforce its airspace and prevent Iranian aircraft suspected of transporting weapons to the regime from flying over Iraqi airspace demonstrates the destabilizing potential that the lack of effective governance in Baghdad can have on the broader Middle East.
The case also illustrates the quiet war that is being waged between the U.S. and Iran, with Iraq at its center. As the U.S. pulled out its forces, Iran’s political clout in the world’s only Arab Shia-majority (ostensible) democracy has strengthened. Beginning with its subversive activities during the occupation, Iranian support has now become a fixture of the dynamic Iraqi political scene. The stakes in the proxy war in Iraq is tied in a critical way to other geopolitical challenges, such as the Iranian nuclear program, and thus to the stability through the Middle East region. The current protests and political paralysis in Iraq threatens to push the state to civil war on the scale of Syria, and demands a strong U.S. reengagement in the domestic political process. Failure to do so would risk everything we’ve sacrificed for in the past 10 years, and then much more.