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The Agony of Iraq—and Its Lesson for Syria | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

The Agony of Iraq—and Its Lesson for Syria


An Iraqi military helicopter flies over Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad. Reuters/Stringer

On the tenth anniversary of the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s secular, nationalist government, Paul Wolfowitz—a neoconservative and key architect of the American invasion of Iraq—wrote a lengthy apologia for the war. In it, he concluded: “It is remarkable that Iraq has done as well as it has thus far.” Besides Wolfowitz, various other members of the George W. Bush administration have similarly weighed in, insisting that the unprovoked, illegal war against Iraq was the right thing to do.

Many Iraqis would disagree.

Since that April anniversary, thousands of Iraqis have been slaughtered in sectarian and political violence. In May, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in a relentless wave of bombings, suicide attacks, assassinations and other violence, according to the United Nations, and nearly 2,000 have been killed since April. No doubt, those totals understate the true scope of the killing.

Some of the violence is a spillover from the civil war in Syria, where a panoply of Islamist militias, some directly linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), are waging a battle against the secular, authoritarian government of Bashar al-Assad. In Iraq, the AQI forces may or may not be allied with remnants of the old Iraqi order, including Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the top Baathist official still active in the armed resistance to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Duri, who reportedly is still living underground in Iraq, has set up a group called the Naqshbandi Order, led by ex-Baathists. Both AQI and Duri’s forces draw strength from Iraq’s complex web of Sunni tribes, and—although most of the people killed by Sunni-led violence in Iraq are Shiites or supporters of Maliki—many of the dead are Sunnis who are cooperating with Maliki or are neutral.

In the following, The Nation has compiled a partial list of the major incidents of mass killing since the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s fall:

April 5: 20 dead, 55 wounded in two bombings in Baquba, Diyala province. Eyewitness: “It was like a red pond. People were running over the dead ones. The place was full of blood.”

April 15: 37 dead, 140 wounded in twenty separate attacks, “mostly car bombings, in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Hilla, Fallujah, Nasiriya and Tikrit.”

April 15: At least fifteen candidates assassinated in local election races.

April 18: twenty-seven dead, dozens wounded by suicide bomber in a Baghdad café.

April 23: forty-four killed in clashes between Sunni protesters and government forces.

May 20: eighty-six killed, 250 wounded in nine car bombings and a wave of suicide attacks in Baghdad, Basra, Hilla, Balad and other Iraqi cities.

May 21: forty dead in another wave of bombings and suicide attacks.

May 27: fifty-three killed and 100 wounded in wave of bombings in Shiite areas of Baghdad. “Eight car bombings hit Shiite neighborhoods, including Huriya, Sadr City, Baya, Zafaraniya and Kadhimiya.”

May 30: thirty dead, dozens wounded in another bombing wave.

June 10: “Insurgents attacked cities across Iraq on Monday with car bombs, suicide blasts and gun battles that killed more than seventy people in unrest that has deepened fears of a return to civil war.”

June 16: 33 killed, 100 wounded in car bomb attacks in five southern Iraq provinces and two of Iraq’s major northern cities, Tikrit and Mosul.

There are many more such horrific incidents.

Much of the recent violence stems not from the war in Syria but from the April 23 clash between peaceful Sunni protesters, who object of Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule, and Maliki’s heavy-handed security forces. As Michael Knights described it:

On April 23, the federal military miscalculated when its raid on a protest site in the northern town of Hawija turned into a bloody firefight, and scores of civilians were killed. This event has the potential to become an iconic rallying call for insurgent groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the neo-Baathist Naqshbandi movement, which can fit it into its calls for ongoing resistance against a “Safavid occupation” of Iraq—a reference to the Persian dynasty that evokes Sunni Arab fears of the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

Anthony Cordesman, a conservative military strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, usefully points out that Iraq, not Syria, is the pivotal nation in the Middle East, and that its unraveling could become catastrophic. Still, it would be folly for the Obama administration to reengage in Iraq, and even Cordesman notes that the United States “has limited cards to play”:

The U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement exists on paper, but it did not survive the Iraqi political power struggles that came as the United States left. The U.S. military presence has been reduced to a small U.S. office of military cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and it is steadily shrinking. The cumbersome U.S. arms transfer process has already pushed Iraq to buy arms from Russia and other suppliers. The U.S. State Department’s efforts to replace the military police training program collapsed before they really began. The United States is a marginal player in the Iraqi economy and economic development, and its only aid efforts are funded through money from past years. The State Department did not make an aid request for Iraq for FY2014.

The neoconservatives, having promoted and launched the war in 2003, have lately turned against the very Iraqi government they installed. Back in 2003, the Bush administration and the folks at the American Enterprise Institute happily made common cause not only with Ahmed Chalabi, the Shiite activist who, it turned out, had close ties to Iran, but also with a whole array of Iranian-linked Shiite groups, including the aptly named Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Maliki’s Dawa Party. Now that those same Shiites are working closely with Iran, the neoconservatives have turned sharply against Maliki, and they’ve released a long series of reports condemning his rule. Consider, for instance, the recent report by the neoconservative-led Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Back in 2003, the neocons bitterly assailed the Sunnis of Iraq, and they called for the United States to adopt the “80 percent solution,” that is, to ally with Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds, who together makeup about 80 percent of Iraq’s population. Now, the ISW says:

The political participation of the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq is critical to the security and stability of the state. At present, they are functionally excluded from government, with those that do participate coopted by the increasingly authoritarian Shi‘a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Without effective political representation, the Sunni in Iraq are left with few alternatives to address their grievances against the Maliki government. The important decisions lie ahead on whether to pursue their goals via political compromise, federalism, or insurgency.

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Just as in the civil war in Syria, in which many neoconservatives can’t find “good guys” to support—because Assad’s government has been demonized and the rebels are shot through with Al Qaeda types—in Iraq they have the same problem. They don’t like Maliki, because he is more and more allied with Iran, as evinced by the fact that Maliki is allowing Iran to airlift arms and ammunition to Damascus over Iraqi airspace. On the other hand, the neocons—and the Obama administration, too, it appears—can’t ally themselves with the Sunni-led Iraqi resistance, since it also has Al Qaeda connections. Indeed, the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni-led rebels tied to Al Qaeda have announced that they are in fact a single organization.

The lesson here: the Middle East is a very complicated place. Invading it, occupying it, and changing its ethnic and sectarian balance should be avoided at all costs. President Obama, who opposed the war in Iraq, should heed that lesson and stay out of Syria ten years later.

Is the media responsible for the “male gaze”? Read Jessica Valenti’s argument here.

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