As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hurried to his helicopter ready to take off at the end of a visit to Iraq last year, it was becoming clearer that the Americans had lost control of a country they wished to mold to their liking. Kerry’s departure on March 24 was the conclusion of a surprise visit meant to mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A decade earlier the United States had stormed Baghdad, unleashing a brutal, long conflict. Since then, Iraq has not ceased to bleed.
Kerry offered nothing of value on that visit, save the same predictable cliches about Iraq’s supposedly successful democracy, as a testament to some imagined triumph of American values.
It was telling that a decade of war was not even enough to assure an ordinary trip for the American diplomat. It was a “surprise” because no amount of coordination between the U.S. embassy, then consisting of 16,000 staff, and the Iraqi government, could guarantee Kerry’s safety.
Yet something sinister was brewing in Iraq. Mostly Sunni Muslim tribesmen were fed up with the political paradigm imposed by the Americans almost immediately upon their arrival, which divided the country based on sectarian lines. The Sunni areas, in the center and west of the country, paid a terrible price for the U.S. invasion that empowered political elites purported to speak on behalf of the Shiite Muslims.
The latter, predisposed mostly to Iranian interests, began to slowly diversify their allegiance. Initially they played the game by U.S. rules and served as an iron fist against those who dared resist the occupation. But as years passed, the likes of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki found in Iran a more stable ally: where sect, politics and economic interests seamlessly align. Thus, Iraq was ruled over by a strange, albeit undeclared troika in which the U.S. and Iran had great political leverage where the Shiite-dominated government cleverly attempted to find balance, and survive.
Of course, a country with the size and history of Iraq doesn’t easily descend into sectarian madness on its own. But Shiite and Sunni politicians and intellectuals who refused to adhere to the prevailing intolerant political archetype were long sidelined — killed, imprisoned, deported and simply had no space in today’s Iraq — as national identity was banished by sect, tribe, religion and race.
Currently the staff of the U.S. embassy stands at 5,100, and American companies are abandoning their investments in the south of Iraq where the vast majority of the country’s oil exists. It is in the south that al-Maliki has the upper hand. He, of course, doesn’t speak on behalf of all Shiites and is extremely intolerant of dissidents.
In 2008, he fought a brutal war to seize control of Basra from Shiite militias who challenged his rule. Later, he struck the Mehdi Army of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr in a Baghdad suburb. He won in both instances, but at a terrible toll. His Shiite rivals would be glad to see him go.
Maliki’s most brutal battles however have been reserved for dissenting Sunnis. His government, as has become the habit of most Arab dictators, is claiming to have been fighting terrorism since day one and has yet to abandon the slogans it propagates. While militant Sunni groups, some linked to al-Qaida, have indeed taken advantage of the ensuing chaos to promote their own ideology and solicit greater support for their cause, Iraq’s Sunnis have suffered much humiliation throughout the years long before al-Qaida was introduced to Iraq,courtesy of the U.S. invasion.
Iraq’s Sunni tribes, despite every attempt at negotiating a dignified formulation to help millions of people escape the inferno of war, were dismissed and humiliated. The likes of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was notorious for his targeting Sunni tribes and for his mercilessness toward any community that supported or tolerated the resistance. Due to strong support by Shiite militias, which served as the core of the Iraqi Army, and Kurdish militias in the north, the resistance was isolated and brutalized.
That history is not only relevant, it is agonizing reality. When the last U.S. military column snaked out of Iraq into Kuwait in December 2011, the U.S. was leaving Iraq with the worst possible scenario: a sectarian central government beyond corrupt, plus many ruthless parties vying for power or revenge and sectarian polarization at its most extreme.
Nonetheless, Iraq is still very important to the Americans. It is perhaps a failed military experiment, but it is still rich in oil and natural gas. Moreover, Iraq is getting richer, the draft of the Iraqi budget for 2014 “anticipates average exports of 3.4 million barrels/day (b/d), up from 1 million b/d the previous year,” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“Radical shifts are certainly on the horizon,” reported Forbes on the future of the oil market. Something is driving speculation and that “something is Iraq.”
Iraq’s prospected oil production potential “dwarfs everything else,” reported Canada’s Globe & Mail (Jan. 31), citing Henry Groppe, an oil and gas analyst. “It’s the thing that everybody ought to be watching and following as closely as possible.
Drawing its conclusions for the 2012 Iraq Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency reported that Iraq’s output could be “in excess of 9 million b/d by 2020,” which “would equal the highest sustained growth in the history of the global oil industry.”
And many are watching. Kerry and the U.S. administration are hardly fond of Maliki, for the latter is too close to Tehran to be trusted. But he is Iraq’s strongest man commanding about 930,000 security personnel “spread across the army, police force and intelligence services,” according to the BBC, and that for the Americans must count for something.
However, Iraq’s riches cannot be easily obtained. Sure, the country’s strong parties are comforted by the fact that the army crackdown on Sunni tribes, al-Qaida- affiliated militias and other groups in al-Anbar and elsewhere is happening outside the country’s main oil field. But they shouldn’t discount just how quickly civil wars spiral out of control.
The death toll in 2013 was alarmingly high, over 8,000, mostly civilians, according to the U.N. It is the highest since 2008.
Iraq’s “bad years” seem to be making a comeback. This time the U.S. has little leverage over Iraq to control the events from afar. “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry said in recent comments during a visit to Jerusalem.
Indeed, with little military and diplomatic presence, the U.S. can do very little. In fact, they have done enough.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.