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26 June 2014, Gateway House

Iraq crisis: 2003 revisited?

Over two years after American troops left Iraqi soil, the rise of the brutal ISIS is forcing a war weary contemplate a return to the country. Amid plummeting approval ratings and divided opinions at home, President Barack Obama will have to carefully weigh the implications of a disintegrated Iraq on the U.S. and indeed, the world.

Director, Gateway House

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The United States is at war – not in Iraq or Syria as yet but with itself. Even though the midterm elections are still five months away, the rapid advances in Iraq by the vicious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group, has generated a great deal to fight about – why and how the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, should it get involved in Iraq again, and if yes, to what extent and in what capacity. The Democrats place the blame, with much justification, at the door of then Republican president George W. Bush who led the country into the two wars that President Barack Obama was elected to get America out of. The Republicans blame Obama for showing weakness by leaving Iraq prematurely and not attacking Syria. Together, they blame Iraqi premier, Nouri al-Maliki for triumphal sectarianism and massive corruption.

The architects of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – the Dick Cheneys and Paul Wolfowitzes – are in full flow in the news media battlefield to denounce the Obama administration for squandering the gains of their war in Iraq by not attacking Syria two years ago. This is mystifying until they helpfully elaborate that the very same ISIS that has overrun a third of Iraq – the Sunni-dominated areas – in a matter of months, was first established in Syria. What they neglect to explain is that along with the funding of their Sunni allies in the Gulf, the West supported the opposition in Syria – turning legitimate protests against the long-established Assad dynasty into a horrific civil war in a highly urbanised country.

If the views of the American neoconservatives who comprised the bulk of the George W. Bush administration were not enough, the disgraced former British prime minister Tony Blair has resurrected the peculiar theory that Iraq would have been a mess regardless of whether or not the 2003 invasion had occurred. He argues that there would have been some sort of an ‘Iraqi spring’, and Saddam Hussein would have used chemical weapons to quell the uprising as Bashar al-Assad did in Syria. This would be laughable were it not for the bizarre facts that Blair is the representative of the UN, EU, U.S. and Russia’s Quartet on the Middle East, and that he is reportedly planning to expand his financial interests in the Gulf by opening an office for his eponymous consulting group in Dubai.

Now, the same neocons who took the U.S. into an invasion of Iraq on patently false charges of possessing weapons of mass destruction and being aligned with al-Qaeda, who want Obama to use force in both Syria and Iraq to quell ISIS. There are lively arguments on what kind of force should be used, how many “advisors” should be sent, and whether drone strikes constitute a powerful counterterrorism strategy. The fear in the intelligence community seems to be one of blowback in the form of attacks on American or European soil from returning ISIS fighters who hold American or European passports.

There is a realisation that ISIS is in for the long haul and the big prize – establishing a caliphate. Although its present activity is limited to Iraq and Syria, the group’s ambition includes Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine at the very least. It positions itself more like the Taliban in Afghanistan which perceived itself as legitimate rulers imposing rule by Sharia (God’s will), rather than terrorist groups that seek to create mayhem like the al-Qaeda, the original aim of which was to drive American forces out of Saudi Arabia, or the many Pakistan-based terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba or Jamaat-ud-Dawa that aim to terrorise Indians.

It is a fact that the al-Maliki government is beleaguered enough to be pleading with the U.S. to return to the country over two years since its total drawdown. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has recently left Baghdad demanding the formation of a government inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds, also stating vaguely that Obama may not wait for that to happen before acting. This is because everything that is now happening in Iraq is projected as the fault of a divisive Shia government dictated to by neighbouring Iran. At the same time, the Americans would like Iran to use its influence with al-Maliki to set up a government that gives representation and genuine power to Sunni representatives. Contrarily, it has also asserted that Iran should expect nothing in return, especially not in the context of the ongoing nuclear talks with the P5 and Germany. Unsurprisingly Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has spoken against foreign interference in Iraq.

The American public is shown in opinion polls to be weary of war – but not of wanting the world to do what the U.S. dictates. Obama’s job approval rating is a low 41%, while his handling of foreign policy is at a dismal 37%. The fatigue stems from the cost of nearly a decade-and-a-half of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and resignation to the reality that the public has no way of influencing the decision-making on war in the immediate future. The real concerns for Americans remain that no more of their people should be killed in faraway wars, and the slow economic recovery.

Meanwhile, the price of oil has risen (Brent Crude is at a nine-month high of $114 per barrel), but no one in the U.S. thinks west Asian oil is an issue in the Syria-Iraq crisis. The cornucopia of shale gas has disguised the fact that American and European oil companies were the principle beneficiaries of the oil laws promulgated in Iraq.

Another aspect that has gone unmentioned is that Iraq had already become a big buyer of American weapons. There is an estimated $13 billion worth of presently unfulfilled orders and it is almost guaranteed that any government in Iraq will want even more. American lawmakers could foreseeably be asking themselves which are more valuable weapons export destinations for the future – Iraq and Iran, or Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries?

Similarly other issues crucial to the continuation of Iraq as a country receive only a passing glance from the West. A three-way partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish areas provokes no angst, especially as the trifurcation was first suggested by then senator and now vice president, Joe Biden. After the capture of Kirkuk by Kurdish armed force on June 10, Kurdish leaders are already demanding independence. Unfortunately for Iraq and the region, American comfort levels with the breakup of Iraq are quite high, especially now that the first shipment of Kurdish oil has been delivered to Israel through Turkey.

What happens in Iraq has relevance to what is predicted to happen in Afghanistan after the American withdrawal is completed in 2016. The Afghan army is dominated by Tajik officers in a predominantly Pashtun country. In case the presidential run-off is seen as having cheated the half-Tajik candidate in the lead, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, will that army also melt away in the face of a Taliban offensive? For India, that may be a greater existential threat than the rising price of oil from a disintegrating Iraq.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

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