As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hurried to his helicopter, ready to take off at the end of a visit to Iraq last year, it was becoming clearer that the Americans had lost control of a country they wished to mold to their liking. His departure on March 24, 2013 was the conclusion of a ‘surprise’ visit meant to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Ten years prior, the US had stormed Baghdad, unleashing one of the 20th century’s longest and most brutal conflicts. Since then, Iraq has not ceased to bleed.
Kerry offered nothing of value on that visit, save the same predictable clichés of Iraq’s supposedly successful democracy, as a testament to some imagined triumph of American values. But it was telling that a decade of war was not even enough to assure an ordinary trip for the American diplomat. It was a ‘surprise’ because no amount of coordination between the US embassy, then consisting of 16,000 staff, and the Iraqi government, could guarantee Kerry’s safety.
Yet something sinister was brewing in Iraq. Mostly Muslim Sunni tribesmen were fed up with the political paradigm imposed by the Americans almost immediately upon their arrival, which divided the country based on sectarian lines. The Sunni areas, in the center and west of the country, paid a terrible price for the US invasion that empowered political elites purported to speak on behalf of the Shia. The latter, who were mostly predisposed by Iranian interests, began to slowly diversify their allegiance. Initially, they played the game per US rules and served as an iron fist against those who dared resist the occupation. But as years passed, the likes of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki found in Iran a more stable ally: where sect, politics, and economic interests seamlessly align. Thus, Iraq was ruled over by a strange albeit undeclared troika in which the US and Iran had great political leverage where the Shia-dominated government cleverly attempted to find balance and survive.
Of course, a country with the size and history of Iraq doesn’t easily descend into sectarian madness on its own. But Shia and Sunni politicians and intellectuals who refused to adhere to the prevailing intolerant political archetype were long sidelined—killed, imprisoned, deported, and simply had no space in today’s Iraq—as national identity was banished by sect, tribe, religion and race.
Currently, the staff of the US embassy stands at 5,100, and American companies are abandoning their investments in the south of Iraq where the vast majority of the country’s oil exists. It is in the south that al-Maliki has the upper hand. He, of course, doesn’t speak on behalf of all Shia, and is extremely intolerant of dissidents. In 2008, he fought a brutal war to seize control of Basra from Shia militias who challenged his rule. Later, he struck the Mehdi Army of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr in a Baghdad suburb. He won in both instances, but at a terrible toll. His Shia rivals would be glad to see him go.
Maliki’s most brutal battles however have been reserved for dissenting Sunnis. His government, as has become the habit of most Arab dictators, is claiming to have been fighting terrorism since day one, and is yet to abandon the slogans it propagates. While militant Sunni groups, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, have indeed taken advantage of the ensuing chaos to promote their own ideology, and solicit greater support for their cause, Iraq’s Sunnis have suffered humiliation of many folds throughout the years long before al-Qaeda was introduced to Iraq—courtesy of the US invasion.
Iraq’s Sunni tribes, despite every attempt at negotiating a dignified formulation to help millions of people escape the inferno of war, were dismissed and humiliated. The likes of former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was notorious for his targeting of Sunni tribes and mercilessness with any community that in any way supported or tolerated the resistance. Due to strong support by Shia militias, which served as the core of today’s Iraqi army, and Kurdish militias in the north, the resistance was isolated and brutalized.
That history is not only relevant, but it is not history to begin with. It is the agonizing reality. When the last US military column snaked out of Iraq into Kuwait in Dec. 2011, the US was leaving Iraq with the worst possible scenario: a sectarian central government that was beyond corrupt, plus many ruthless parties vying for power or revenge and sectarian polarization at its most extreme manifestation.
Nonetheless, Iraq is still very important to the Americans. It is perhaps a failed military experiment, but it is still rich of oil and natural gas. Moreover, Iraq is getting richer, the draft of the Iraqi budget for 2014 “anticipates average exports of 3.4m barrels/day (b/d), up 1m b/d from the previous year,” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Radical shifts are certainly on the horizon,” reported Forbes on the future of the oil market. Something is driving speculation and that “something is Iraq.” (Jan 31) Iraq’s prospected oil production potential “dwarfs everything else”, reported Canada’s Globe & Mail, citing Henry Groppe, a respected oil and gas analyst. “It’s the thing that everybody ought to be watching and following as closely as possible,” he said.
Drawing its conclusions for the 2012 Iraq Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency reported that Iraq could be “reaching output in excess of 9 mb/d by 2020”, which “would equal the highest sustained growth in the history of the global oil industry.”
And many are indeed watching. Kerry and the US administration are hardly fond of Maliki, for the latter is too close to Tehran to be trusted. But he is Iraq’s strongest man commanding about 930,000 security personnel “spread across the army, police force and intelligence services,” according to the BBC, and that for the Americans must count for something.
However, Iraq’s riches cannot be easily obtained. Sure, the country’s strong parties are comforted by the fact that the army crackdown on Sunni tribes, al-Qaeda affiliated militias and other groups in al-Anbar and elsewhere is happening outside the country’s main oil field. But they shouldn’t discount just how quickly civil wars spiral out of control. The death toll in 2013 was alarmingly high, over 8,000, mostly civilians, according to the UN. It is the highest since 2008.
Iraq’s ‘bad years’ seem to be making a comeback. This time the US has little leverage over Iraq to control the events from afar. “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry said in recent comments during a visit to Jerusalem. Indeed, with little military and diplomatic presence, the US can do very little. In fact, they have done enough.