I sat down with James Phillips, Heritage’s Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs, to get his take on the violence in Iraq.
Why the sudden spike in violence in Iraq?
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has made a strong comeback due to the spillover effect of rising sectarian tensions in Syria and Iraq’s Shia-dominated government’s heavy-handed treatment of the Sunni minority. AQI bombs Shia targets, and Shia militias are now retaliating with their own bombs against Sunnis.
What are the chances of civil war?
Very high. It’s already a slow-motion civil war, and I think it will get worse.
How does the violence in Iraq relate to Syria?
AQI controls the al-Nusra Front, one of the strongest factions within the Syrian opposition, and funnels fighters, arms, and money into Syria. Sunni tribes straddle the border, and Iraqi tribesmen are helping their Syrian cousins in the rebel coalition.
What does all this mean for the U.S.?
The growing instability in Iraq is one of the negative implications of the Obama Administration’s abrupt military withdrawal that Heritage Foundation analysts warned about back in 2011. The Iraqi government could not keep up the pressure on AQI after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, especially special operations forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also added fuel to fire by prosecuting his Sunni vice president as a terrorist and behaving in a sectarian manner to marginalize Sunni moderates. This helped to revive AQI, which now poses a growing threat to the United States, as well as to Iraqis.
Did the U.S. do something wrong? Could we have prevented this?
Al-Qaeda had been severely degraded in Iraq by an intensive counterterrorism campaign launched by U.S. and Iraqi forces from 2006 through 2011. But the Obama Administration clearly put a higher priority on withdrawing from Iraq than on defeating AQI and stabilizing Iraq. After U.S. troops had withdrawn, Prime Minister Maliki chose to clamp down on Sunnis, which drove more of them to support AQI. Washington should have leaned harder on Maliki to reach out to Sunni moderates in order to isolate Sunni Islamist extremists. But once President Obama made it clear that he was more interested in withdrawing U.S. troops than in stabilizing Iraq, Maliki had little reason to listen to us.