In recent weeks, rebels from the Jihadist militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have maid major gains throughout war-torn Iraq. After being ousted by Iraqi airstrikes, ISIS militants took the city of Samarra on June 12, adding to their conquests of Mosul and Tikrit in subsequent days. The rebels are now within striking range of Iraq’s capital Baghdad and many Western powers (as well as regional countries) are worried that Iraq might fall into the hands of the Jihadists.
If ISIS is able to take control of Baghdad, many Western powers fear that they might become the wealthiest terrorist group in history. This is because along with control of the country, they would also have control of Iraq’s vast and prized oil fields, which could possibly lead to another oil crisis. Along with this, the United States fears that Iraq might become a hotbed of radicalism and extremists. With this vast swath of land and resources under control, the United States fears what damage ISIS might do to their allies in the area as well as to possibly the homeland.
Despite the gargantuan amount in aid that the United States has provided to Iraq for it to train their troops, sectarian rhetoric and policies from the country’s Shi’ite President has left the Sunni minority feeling alienated and underrepresented. While many saw current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki election into power as a possibility to end the conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq, al-Maliki only intensified it. Many of his critics have accused him of centralizing political power among Shi’ites, which has led to increased tension between the two sects of Muslims, which has since escalated into the current crisis unfolding in Iraq.
The crisis has been seen as a response to sectarian violence between the Iraqi Shi’ite government and the Sunni rebels. The Sunnis have been the traditional leaders in Iraq, but with the US occupation of Iraq and subsequent downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, they have retreated back to being the political minority. Saddam Hussein and his regime had a history of violence and oppression towards the Shi’ite minority in his country, with the most famous incident being the post-Gulf War crackdowns on Shi’ite uprisings by Saddam Hussein, in which an unaccounted number of civilians were murdered. In fact, the whole Iran-Iraq war in the 80s was due to Saddam trying to prevent the spread of Iran’s radical Shi’ite government.
After the toppling of Saddam’s regime, Iraq was left in shambles. Al-Qaeda soon got involved and proceeded to bomb Shi’ite events and places of worship, which escalated into sectarian violence that has since been ripping the country apart. While Saddam did rule with an Iron fist, during his reign there was at least a sense of order and stability in both Iraq and in the Middle East.
Shi’ite and Sunnis are both branches of Islam. The split happened after the death of the prophet Muhammad, with the two groups disagreeing on who should succeed him as the Caliph, or ruler of their religion. Shi’ite Muslims believe that the rightful successor was Muhammad’s father-in-law and that the correct method of choosing leaders is by consensus. Sunni Muslims believe that Muhammad ordained his cousin and son-in-law to be the rightful ruler. Other than that, their beliefs and practices don’t differ that much.
The leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is now considered enemy number one by the United States and the State Department are offering a $10 million reward for his capture. Al-Baghdadi was actually under United States custody from 2005 to 2009, until he was released into Iraqi custody, which decided to release him into the public. The last words he uttered to the Americans who held him were “I’ll see you guys in New York”, which has sparked concerns that ISIS may be planning another 9/11-like attack on American soil.
Many feared that radical Islamist groups were going to take control of Iraq as soon as American forces pulled out, but there isn’t much else to expect when you topple a dictator without something stable to replace him with. The sectarian violence in Iraq and the Middle East will continue with or without American intervention and as of right now, it seems as if the Iraq war was completely fruitless and without cause. While the Americans and the West managed to topple Saddam’s brutal regime, they sent Iraq into a tailspin in doing so, leaving it in worse condition than prior to the war. The United States had the incorrect idea that a problem could be solved simply by throwing money at it. Ten years and $60 billion later, Iraq is still in shambles. A quarter of the population lives in poverty and many of them do not have access to either clean water nor electricity. This is in part because of misallocation of aid money, with as many as $8 billion of that aid money being wasted.
All US military forces left Iraq in December of 2011 and many Americans are weary of any involvement in this crisis after nearly a decade in the country. President Obama notified Congress on Monday that he is going to send some 275 military personnel to “to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.” The President may also send 100 special ops troops to advise the Iraqi military, which would seem pointless as most of the Iraqi military has fled in the face of the ISIS rebels. This action seems to be contradictory to President Obama’s claim that he would not place US troop back on the ground two and a half years after withdrawing them. But the move seems logical, after the attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi.
The crisis has created an unlikely partnership between Iran and the United States. Iran is also governed by a Shi’ite majority and has close ties to the Shi’ite government in Iraq. But of course, this might lead to Sunni-majority countries (such as Saudia Arabia) to step in. The United States can simply let their regional allies to help handle the problem and any American involvement should not be military in nature; the United States and Iraq should seek a diplomatic solution to this ongoing crisis, After all, the crisis happened in part because of Shi’ite oppression of Sunnis. But the United States must avoid military involvement at all costs. We already lost over 3,500 American men and women in combat, all for seemingly nothing. We must not let any more American troops die in vain.