Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What the Heck is Going on in Iraq?

In the 19 months since the Obama Administration effectively removed the last of the U.S. troops in Iraq, the embattled state has seen slight progress – something virtually unparalleled since Saddam Hussein was taken out of power in 2003. Due to enormous, and previously unforeseen deposits of oil underneath Kurdish territory in the north and northeast regions of the country, Iraqi Kurds have had more leverage in dealing and negotiating with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government – in fact, this past June marked the first time al-Maliki had visited Iraqi Kurdistan in over two years. On the other hand, sectarian violence, especially between the Sunnis and the Shiites, has remained incredibly high. For his part, al-Maliki has “encouraged talks”, but with a promise to continue military assaults against Sunnis he perceives as threatening, these talks are likely not to happen anytime soon. However, there certainly remains an air of increasing stability in the country – an air that has not existed in quite some time.

Yesterday’s simultaneous attack on two jails in Baghdad, of which al Qaeda has officially claimed responsibility, quickly evaporated that air and has once again made the world wonder if Iraq is on the brink of following in Somalia’s footsteps and devolving into a failed state. Insurgents armed with suicide bombs, car bombs and RPGs took the lives of approximately 120 guards and special op forces, ultimately freeing between 500 and 600 prisoners. Much to everyone’s chagrin, a member of the Iraqi parliament told Reuters earlier that many of those that escaped were both senior-level al Qaeda members and had received death sentences following conviction.

Whether or not these prisoners are recaptured and put back into prison, the question remains: what does this attack mean for the future of Iraq? For one thing, al Qaeda has flexed their muscles and demonstrated their capability to wreak havoc on the Iraqi people. It is worth noting that one of the jails attacked – the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, which gained notoriety for the abuse U.S. soldiers once inflicted on their prisoners – is one of the most high-security facilities within Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as this particular faction of the terrorist organization is known, is estimated to have members numbering between 2,000 and 3,000, according to an article today in Time Magazine. With no shortage of mujahideen ready to continue escalating the violence in Iraq, Iraqi military forces may need to prepare for a lengthy and bloody campaign.

The serious problem of the AQI is further compounded by the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria. The fighting between Sunnis and the Alawite minority, which includes President Bashar al-Asad, has no end in sight and is threatening to spill over into Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan. The escalation of this sectarian conflict could quite possibly be a deathblow to Iraqi’s stability – with hundreds dying because of sectarian violence in Iraq as it is, a full-blown civil conflict flooding into Iraq from Syria would likely cause unprecedented casualties and put an end to the notion that Syria’s conflict can be defused by the Western world. Furthermore, a civil conflict of that scale in Iraq would divert the Iraqi military’s attention so far from al Qaeda, that they would have no trouble growing substantially and to the point of being a serious threat to not just Iraq, but the entire world. This would be a tragic resurgence given the time – just about a decade – and resources that the U.S. invested in ridding Iraq of al Qaeda.

Yes, in the past 19 months since the last U.S. troops left Iraq things have appeared stabilized and heading in a positive direction towards a democratic government and less sectarian differences. But, perhaps that was only a veneer. Yesterday’s attack has pierced that veneer and shown the world, and particularly the U.S., the condition Iraq has been left in. Iraq would be foolish to think that NATO, the U.S., or any combination will be rushing back to their assistance anytime soon – President Obama campaigned the first time around on pulling troops out of the Middle East, and his Administration will likely be characterized by his ability to make good on his promise and facilitate that. But without our assistance, what is the next step for Iraq? Can the Iraqi military itself overcome the challenges al Qaeda poses? There is a lot hinging on the Middle East these days – for now, it appears, all we can do is wait and see who makes the next move.

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