The United States has carried out several airstrikes in order to repel Sunni and Islamic militant forces from Kurdish territory. The Kurds had been a loyal supporter of the US war in Iraq, because they had received a favorable political settlement in the post-Saddam Hussein regime in the form of an autonomous province run by Kurds.
The US wants to target artillery and other combat forces of the militants, and drop off water and food supplies for the Yazidis, a religious minority in northern and western Iraq (Nissenbaum and Barnes 2014). The US can portray itself as a benign force, wanting to find a real political settlement to alleviate the precarious position of its allies in the Middle East region, and we can feel relieved of spending the $25,000 per bomb that is dropped over the heads of the militants, because we, the US people, are spreading goodness around earth.
But for most of us, there should be no illusion. The United States had been the cause for the rise of the rise of the militant groups in the region. The Iraq War was initiated by the US and lasted from 2003 to 2011, when the US troops pulled out of Iraq. Why would I make such a large claim? Well, in the hypothetical case that Saddam Hussein- as cruel of a dictator as he was- was still in power, the militants would not have gained such a foothold. Despite two devastating wars, one against Iran in the 1980s, and one in 1991 following the occupation of Kuwait, when the US led a coalition to oust the Iraqi army from Kuwait, Saddam maintained an iron fist over his country, and it would not have been possible under his leadership to have militant Islamists taking over the country (Channel 4). It was only after the US invasion that terrorism increased and the security situation deteriorated with hundreds of thousands of civilians having been killed ever since.
The essential dilemma in Iraq has to do with the sectarian division in three parts, consisting of Sunni, Shia and Kurds (see map). The latter ethnic division was made possible by the British, who had controlled Iraqi territory after the defeat of the Ottoman empire in World War I. The British then arbitrarily drew up Iraqi borders, not taking into account the different ethno-religious groups that lived in them. If there had been a political settlement to incorporate all groups, it might have preserved peace. The goal of the pan-Arabian, socialist, secular Baath party of Saddam Hussein, which formally took power in 1968 (Saddam became president in 1979, following the ouster of president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr), was to unite the country’s different factions by economic development gained through the oil revenues.
It was under Saddam Hussein that oil revenues were used to build schools, infrastructure and industries. The oil revenues really increased after the 1973 oil embargo, which massively increased the price of oil. But, of course, that was not the only thing he did. Saddam also used repressive tactics, especially against the Kurds (who had their own independence struggles) and the Shias, who both opposed Saddam’s dictatorship. It was Saddam, who had initiated the war against Iran in the 1980s, in the hope to gain supremacy in the Middle East, but also in the hope to suppress the pro-Shia uprisings, which were supported across the border to Shia-based Iran. The war had resulted in the death of over half a million Iraqis, and there was no change in territory. It was Iraq that had used chemical weapons against Iran and not vice versa.
So we get it, Saddam Hussein did not lead a benign government, but at least he did his part to defuse some social tensions through the carrot (economic development) and the stick (brutal repression of political opposition). There was a chronic lack of liberty and democracy, but there was a lot of security
Now, let us contrast this situation to post-US invasion. Iraq’s national security is in a precarious state, not incidentally after the imposition of democracy from abroad. The US had been celebrated for the democracy that they were going to bring to Iraq. Indeed, there were three parliamentary elections since the invasion (2005, 2010, 2014). But democracy made everything worse in Iraq due to the sectarian division. During the first election, there were perhaps 2% of all Sunnis that actually took the vote due to boycotts, while higher voting turnout came from Shias and Kurds. The Shias were, in addition, the majority of the population, so they carried a handsome majority in parliament. The Shia Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister in 2006, and he formed a coalition government with three other parties, which includes the Kurds and Sunnis.
In theory, Iraq has a unity government with the representation of all factions secured, but political reality tells a different story: there has been a massive increase in violence and terrorism emanating from both sides, Sunnis and Shias, targeted at the other side. It seems to be that the Shias have much greater control over Baghdad and the central government than the Sunnis. With the Sunni militant uprising in Syria, which is targeted against the Alawite president Bashar al-Assad, significant spillover has happened into Iraq, since both countries share a common border. The West of Iraq is sparsely populated, so it is rather simple for the militants to carry their equipment to the other side.
The supporter of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; the Sunni Islamic militants) are located in Saudi Arabia (Clemons 2014). And that makes the situation really absurd, because Saudi Arabia is a crucial ally of the US, and the US had encouraged Saudi arms and money support for the al-Nusra front and the Free Syrian Army that was supposed to overthrow the Assad regime. The US hated Assad, and so getting rid of him was one of the priorities in the US. But now that the Saudis turn their support in favor of ISIS, the US is less happy about it. Though they will never openly oppose Saudi Arabia, because they are the largest oil exporter in the world, the US sees its Iraq legacy threatened by ISIS.
The Iraqi central government is relatively weak, and the haphazardly set up military forces are incapable of stopping the Islamic militants’ advance. The US does everything to prop up its allies in Iraq. Is this another Vietnam moment for the US? The US had lost everything in Vietnam, and gained nothing. In the 1960s, the US had supported the South Vietnamese regime due to the domino theory, according to which if one country fell to the communists, all the other countries would also become communist, and that had to be prevented by all means. The domino theory was false, but it did not prevent the US from invading Vietnam to keep it occupied for a decade, only to realize that the well-supplied Vietnamese guerrilla had the guts to get rid of the US occupiers.
But it would be really questionable to hold onto Vietnam memories in the case of Iraq. The US has already produced a lot of damage in Iraq, and does not need to further intervene. US air strikes are delaying the progress of ISIS, but not really preventing it. Saudi oil money is flowing in there, so this can go on so long as they wish. There is a real possibility that Iraq will completely collapse, and a new dictator will take the reigns of Iraq. It could be that there will be continued warfare along sectarian lines. It could be that the country will split into different parts. Any worst case scenario can be contemplated here. But the point is that the US has already done so much damage, that we should prevent adding more fuel to the fire.
Some people suggest that in order to promote global security, it is important that the US continues to be the global police. But I really find it questionable how global security is advanced if the hated occupiers are coming back to make their mark felt. (I would still say hated occupier, even though some Kurds express relief for US military intervention.) The only way to deescalate tensions is to go to the negotiating table, and have the Iraqis figure out a real power sharing arrangement, maybe with significant grant of autonomy such as for the Kurds. There also needs to be pressure against Saudi Arabia to reduce funding for terrorist groups, but the reasonable solutions are always ruled out right from the beginning. In that case, let the farce and the fighting continue.
For more information on Saddam Hussein, contemporary Iraqi politics and Iraqi history read: