Iraq is back in the American news. Some of the reasons are self-referential. It’s the fifteenth anniversary year of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent crimes and blunders that destroyed what was left of Iraq and scarred the American body politic. Donald Trump has opened the possibility of a war against Iran—sure to be disastrous, if it comes to pass, and making it all the more urgent that we begin to learn the lessons of 2003.
The other reasons why Iraq has grabbed a share of the world’s attention is because of the turning points it has just reached. The Islamic State has been beaten back after overrunning much of the country, establishing a caliphate, and reaching Baghdad’s gates. In May, Iraqis will vote in an election untainted by direct association with the U.S. occupation, featuring parties in candidates with nearly a generation of experience in democratic politics. The incumbent prime minister has run a campaign long on patriotic optics and short on policy specifics, but at the same time, the pre-election period has seen less sectarianism and identity politics than have previous election cycles.
All these matters merit our attention. America will be condemned once again to wreak great damage on the world and on itself unless it learns from what it did to, and in, Iraq. And unless Iraq itself recovers—which will require a sizable and continuing commitment from the United States and its allies—then we all will continue to suffer the bitter harvest of the dissolution of a crucial Arab state.
The rise and (for now) fall of the Islamic State reminds us of an inconvenient fact: that this distant problem, largely of America’s making, remains an American interest no matter how sincerely America wishes to turn the page. We have a stake in Iraqi success, and not merely for moral reasons. We cannot avert our gaze from Iraq itself; nor can we pretend that what happens in Iraq will somehow stay in the Levant.
This distant problem, largely of America’s making, remains an American interest no matter how sincerely America wishes to turn the page.
The current moment places America’s obligations in stark relief. As Iraq awakens from its latest ISIS nightmare, it’s incumbent upon the rest of the world to help the country recover and rebuild. America cannot determine Iraq’s outcomes but still wields considerable influence. After several cycles of overbearing intervention followed by inattentive disengagement, the United States has struck a more sanguine balance since it assumed a low-key leading role in the campaign against ISIS. It ought to continue this balance with two primary goals for the year to come: maintaining and consolidating physical security in the areas liberated from ISIS, and contributing to the formation of a stable nationalist government after the May 12 elections.
New Windows of Opportunity
What happens in the year to come depends as much on Iraqis as it does on the influential foreign powers whose machinations impact the country (top among them Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey).
The challenges are too many to even list here, but the opportunities are stark and new. They also are fleeting: if not seized and built upon, they will vanish.
Sunni Arabs fell from their dominant perch along with Saddam Hussein, in 2003. Only now, with their communities in disarray after the bloody reign of ISIS, are a significant number of Sunnis apparently willing to make common cause with Shia and secular Iraqis on the basis of a Shia-dominated national order—one that has at least a fighting chance of passing as an Iraqi, rather than narrowly sectarian, rule.
A similar dynamic is underway among the Shia militias that led the fight against ISIS on the ground and have now become an inextricable part of the state. Some of the militias are close to Iran, others to the Iraqi clergy, and others to the Iraqi government. But all of the militias now competing in the elections, even those with the most pronounced sectarian histories, have assembled cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic candidate lists. This diversity might be tokenistic or insincere, but it departs from the divisive, purely sectarian and ethnic politics that the Americans formalized and exacerbated with their appointment of a proxy Iraqi Governing Council that was almost entirely based on ethnic and sectarian quotas.
“Either all of Iraq succeeds or all of it fails,” said Sadiq al Rikabi, a member of parliament and close adviser to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Speaking to TCF at a Dawa Party headquarters office in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Rikabi employed nationalist tones that had not often been heard since 2003, especially not from Shia politicians from ruling parties.
“The Sunni people paid a huge price for sectarianism,” he said, carefully acknowledging that most Sunnis had not supported extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, even though their communities had disproportionately suffered destruction on their account. Kurds imagined they could carve out a separate destiny, but accepted after their failed independence bid last fall that geography, economics, and the laws of power consigned them to a future within Iraq’s borders. “We paid with blood and we got the message that the world is with Iraq,” Rikabi said. “Now Iraqi unified. Iraqi authority is applied to every airport and border crossing. Iraqi people are moving toward nationalism.”
Experiments in Iraqi Nationalism
This conciliatory and unifying language offers hope, but it is not by any means the only tone on display.
Some Shia militias have reportedly abused Sunni populations—stealing from them at checkpoints, appropriating their businesses. In some areas there are reports of nighttime assassinations of Sunnis. And ISIS hasn’t disappeared, as evidenced by a steady drumbeat of reported attacks, mostly in rural areas. Recently ISIS claimed a successful ambush where its fighters dressed as Shia militiamen and kidnapped a truckload of Iraqi national policemen, who were later executed.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunnis have yet to be allowed to return home, and Iraqi authorities are struggling to decide how to vet suspected ISIS activists and sympathizers, and what to do with all the extremist supporters.
Some Shia militia groups, especially those with close ties to Iran, have accepted Baghdad’s authority only with reluctance, and will continue to compete with the official government as power centers.
And yet, Iraq’s political veterans, and many of its gunmen, are experimenting for the first time since 2003 with a nationalist vision of Iraq. Nothing else tried so far can hold the country together, and the stakes are too high, it turns out, to allow for a collapse. ISIS arose in Iraq, a slow-boiling byproduct of the U.S. invasion; it coalesced as a destabilizing transnational threat because of the vast ungoverned zones created by wars in Iraq and Syria.
Sectarian politics produced bloodletting and claustrophobic false binaries. Even the competition between Iran and the United States turns out, in Iraq, not to function as a zero-sum game. The rival powers have reluctantly cooperated in the fight against ISIS, and today, Iraq’s leadership has managed an impressive balancing act, maintaining friendships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Turkey.
A functional Iraq with growing strength has the strategic depth and importance to nurture relationships with disparate powers—and, hopefully, to secure its territory from nihilist violent groups like ISIS.
The United States has made some affirming moves, including support for aid and reconstruction funds at a February donor meeting in Kuwait that generated $30 billion in pledges and showcased a renewed belief in Iraq’s prospects.
American diplomats and military officers in Iraq have won plaudits even from skeptics for the delicate way they’ve managed to support Iraq while allowing Iraqis to take credit. The existing, productive approach contrasts starkly with the dangerous, polarizing policies espoused by the new U.S. national security adviser John Bolton. At a moment when Iraq is more than ever eager to balance between Iran and the United States, Bolton has inaccurately painted Iraq as an Iranian proxy and has highlighted the divisions between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, rather than their common interests. This is exactly the wrong approach at a pivotal time.
Ahead of the May 12 elections and the jockeying that will follow, the United States can make clear that it will support any candidate who emerges as prime minister. In private, it can emphasize its interest in a stably governed, secure Iraq that enjoys effective intelligence and security forces, and a functioning economy. Iran holds many levers in Iraq and can certainly play the spoiler if it chooses—but instability in Iraq threatens Iran too, not least because of they share a land border nearly a thousand miles long.
Iraq faces a great many risks, and today’s opening could yet be remembered as a brief pause before the next round of conflict. For the first time since 2003, however, some stars have aligned. The United States has an opportunity to play a salutary role for Iraq, and at the same time reinforce America’s own interests in stabilizing the Middle East and containing the scourge of extremist violence.
Despite the many distractions—or rather, especially because these many distractions pose renewed dangers of deeper, deadlier war—the United States should follow the lead of Iraq’s government and put its best foot forward. There’s no guarantee of success, but perhaps for the first time since 2003 there’s a sizable chance. Let’s not waste it.
Cover image: Demonstrators in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square call for the replacement of corrupt Iraqi government officials on Feb. 9, 2018.