While media attention has focused on such matters as the Obama Care roll-out fiasco and the civil war in Syria, developments in Iraq are becoming increasingly ominous. Sectarian violence there has reached levels not seen since the chaotic days of 2006-2007. Some 7,000 people have perished so far in 2013, and the total for October alone was just shy of 1,000. Since Iraq’s population is a mere 25 million, a comparable death toll in the United States would be nearly 13,000 for October and nearly 90,000 for the current calendar year. As I note in a recent article in Gulan, Iraq is now in the throes of a low-intensity, but very real, civil war between Sunni and Shiite factions.
Because the last units of U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq at the end of 2011, this country is not directly involved in the crisis—in marked contrast to the earlier sectarian conflict. We need to keep it that way. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, is maneuvering to draw the United States into the renewed fighting, asking the Obama administration to increase military assistance to Baghdad—including supplying his government with Apache attack helicopters for offensives against “Sunni militants.”
That term is a code for “Al Qaeda,” but we need to recognize that Maliki has every incentive to portray his aid request in that fashion, even though the nature of Iraq’s turmoil is far more complex than a mere struggle against terrorism. The conflict in Iraq is an internal power struggle between Maliki’s Shiite-led government and disgruntled Sunni factions, some of whom supported Saddam Hussein. Even more important, it is part of a Sunni-Shiite power struggle throughout the Middle East. Not only is that sectarian division a major factor in the ongoing civil war next door in Syria, but it is showing up in such places as Bahrain and Yemen as well.
U.S. leaders need to keep the United States on the sidelines of an increasingly nasty sectarian conflict. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems receptive to Baghdad’s siren call. Providing Maliki’s regime with extensive military aid may make Washington’s policy in the region even more incoherent than it is now. A prominent U.S. objective has been to weaken Iran, the principal Shiite power in the Middle East. That goal is a major reason for Washington’s hostility toward Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and the willingness to assist rebel forces seeking to oust him. Assad is a key ally of Tehran. But Maliki also has been extremely cooperative with Iran as well, and both Assad and Maliki head Shiite-controlled governments.
If Washington steps up military assistance to Maliki, we will be in the bizarre position of simultaneously aiding Sunni-led militants in Syria while helping the Iraq government suppress Sunni-led militants in that country. That is a reasonably good operational definition of an incoherent foreign policy.
The United States has nothing to gain by becoming entangled in the emotional, bloody Sunni-Shiite power struggle in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The Iraq quagmire is beckoning again, but this time we should have the wisdom to resist that invitation. Losing more than 4,400 American lives and wasting nearly a trillion dollars in taxpayer money the first time around was more than enough of a tragedy.