By Molly Reiner
March 17, 2014
The United States withdrew all military forces from Iraq in December 2011. However, sectarian violence between the Shiites and Sunnis has only seemed to increase since U.S. disengagement there; deadly attacks killing dozens of people are commonplace today, two years after American troops left. Such sectarian problems in Iraq, only one example of equally disturbing violence throughout the Middle East, should factor prominently in U.S. foreign policy decision-making, especially in the realm of maintaining security against budding terrorist cells throughout the region. In light of the continued, heated civil unrest in Iraq, U.S. interest must not dwindle in the country that has received so much attention over the decade. However, the U.S. must also carefully gauge its level and direction of involvement, in order to avoid falling into foreign policy traps of the past, including unwavering support for unpopular regimes, or inadvertently funding terrorist organizations.
After the official American troop withdrawal in 2011, civil violence was widely under control; conflict escalated as a result of the independent rule of the newly installed Shiite-controlled government over a population with significant amounts of both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, though Shiites are the majority at 63%. Political disputes directed at Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sparked the sectarian violence once again, led by popular Sunni unrest due to the perceived oppression of the Shiite government. Sunnis especially were subjected to the “de-Baathification” and anti-terrorism laws that imprisoned (some say unjustly) many Sunnis in the few years following U.S. withdrawal. Various clashes between the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni opposition comprised of unhappy civilians and members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (otherwise known as al-Qaeda in Iraq) have threatened to escalate into full-scale sectarian warfare. As recently as January 15 of this year, multiple car bombs were detonated in the capital of Baghdad, killing 22 and injuring 74. These staggering numbers are not even the complete casualty count for the fifteenth, as 61 total people, mostly Shiites, were killed in Baghdad and throughout the country. The violence is centered in Shiite areas targeted by Sunni extremists, fueling general sectarian unrest in the surrounding area, especially in neighboring Syria.
The U.S. response to the sectarian struggle has been predictable, composed entirely of support for the Maliki government. Maliki, of course, was brought to power as a result of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of the previous Baathist dictatorship run by Saddam Hussein. The U.S. therefore has a distinct interest in supporting his hold on power. Additionally, the Sunni opposition contains a significant Islamist and al-Qaeda faction, and the United States fully supports any efforts to eliminate the threat of terror spurting from the region. However, unconditional support for an unpopular regime should trigger alarm bells in the mind of an observer of the region with an understanding of recent historical events. The most recent example of the failings of such a strategy is the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator that perpetuated the close alliance between Egypt and the United States following the 1979 Camp David Accords. When the Egyptian population overthrew the dictatorship in 2011, and then again during the military coup of 2013, popular opinion was decidedly not in favor of the United States, as posters in the street featured negative slogans plastered over the faces of President Obama and Secretary Clinton. The decision to support the government over the masses and vice versa is definitely not an easy one, as the tradeoff is between negative public opinion of the United States and growth and proliferation of terrorist activity. Therefore, the decision to continue both diplomatic and economic support to the Maliki government will require a careful consideration of the ideologies of both the regime and the opposition.