The Iraq quagmire isn’t over yet, and it’s getting worse

Though U.S. troops have largely left Iraq, the problems stemming for the 2003 invasion are far from being resolved. More and more, increasing sectarian tensions, a growing Sunni militancy (including al-Qaeda related groups), power grabs by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and poor relations between Baghdad and Kurdistan are flaring up and causing bloodshed. The deaths of 712 people in April made it the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008.

Growing sectarianism between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims across the Middle East is a major negative effect of the 2011 “Arab Awakening” protests, and Iraq is no exception. (This issue is extremely broad, so I would recommend reading this excellent report from the Brookings Institution for more background.) Much of the violence in Iraq is drawn on strictly sectarian grounds between the majority Shi’a and minority Sunni and is taking form in tit-for-tat mosque and neighborhood¬†bombings across the country.

Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki (Photo credit: AP)

In addition, PM Nouri al-Maliki’s re-centralization of power is sparking memories of Iraq’s previous regime. The PM’s increasingly authoritarian moves have more in common with Saddam Hussein’s governing tactics than Thomas Jefferson’s. Since 2008, al-Maliki and small group of Shi’a allies have taken control over the intelligence agencies, military commanders, federal courts, and the central bank. Al-Maliki also has his own special forces unit that reports directly to him and is seen by many as a tool to crack down on Sunni opposition.

This is simply an inverse of how things stood in pre-invasion Iraq, but now instead of Sunni domination of Shi’a, it’s Shi’a domination of Sunnis. As Michael Knights points out in Foreign Policy, “The executive branch is rapidly eclipsing all checks and balances that were put in place to guarantee a new autocracy did not emerge.”

As questions of governing become more and more couched in sectarian terms, getting Iraq on a path to peace will become more and more difficult. Though its influence has diminished in recent years, the United States has an obligation to be involved and do what it can to encourage reconciliation and peaceful opposition. Otherwise, we will stand on the sidelines as Iraq descends into a repeat of its 2006 civil war – an outcome no one wants. U.S. combat troops may be gone, but our work in Iraq is far from over.

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