Without American troops as a watchdog, chaos and sectarian violence may easily re-ignite in Iraq. There is the possibility of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia regaining strength, and of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army resurfacing. It is questionable whether the Sons of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces will be able to hold off insurgents, militias, and al Qaeda without the help of the US. The suicide bombings in Iraq's northern Nineveh Providence in early July 2009 portray an increase in Kurdish-Arab violence in addition to an increase in Sunni-Shia aggression within Baghdad's Sadr City. More troublesome are the attacks of August 19, 2009 in Baghdad which resulted in approximately 95 casualties and 300 injuries. Sunni extremist groups, possibly including al Qaeda, are thought to be responsible for the attacks which targeted the Iraqi foreign ministry and other government buildings. Again Sunnis are violently reacting to the Shia dominated Iraqi government and may represent a dismal future for the stability and safety of Iraq especially as elections draw near. As a reaction to the recent fighting, Prime Minister al-Maliki extended the date of complete US withdrawal beyond the December 31, 2011 deadline if so required. The possibility of US troops withdrawing by 2011 is becoming further from reality given the intense ethnic violence that is resonating throughout the nation.
Intrastate ethnic violence in Iraq could easily spread outward transforming the conflict into an interstate struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Despite the centuries of hostility between Arabs and Persians, many fear the capabilities of an emboldened Iran backed by the Shia majority of Iraq. Fear of Sunni suppression in Iraq, especially after Bremer's notorious de-Ba'athification, is a significant concern for neighboring Sunni countries particularly Saudi Arabia. Recently the Shia dominated Iraqi forces seized a camp of Iranian opposition and MEK exiles in Iraq. Such action helps align Iraq with Tehran, causing greater fear among Sunnis, particularly the Saudis, of Shia dominance spreading throughout the region.
With hardliner Ahmadinejad seeking nuclear capabilities, the Saudi Sunnis will likely seek to balance Persian power and curb the power of their own Shia communities. The Kingdom is arguably the only Sunni state in the Middle East large, wealthy, and powerful enough to check Iran. However, a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East is a treacherous way for such states to balance power. Acknowledging the ethnic divides within Iraq is of utmost importance because of its implications on the future of Middle Eastern security.
Both the Saudis and Iranians may use Iraq as a proxy with each state exerting influence by supporting Sunni or Shia communities respectively. The economic and political motivations of powerful regional states like Saudi Arabia and Iran will be masked by the religious divide. In attempts to obtain political, economic, and social power within the Middle East, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are likely to invoke ethno-rel igious hatreds and fears to obtain their goals. Increased propaganda will likely reinforce Sunni-Shia divisions where otherwise they may have gone unnoticed by common Middle Eastern communities.
Policy prescriptions for the centuries-old conflict remain uncertain though not unattainable. If the US and its European allies begin looking at the conflict from a state centric perspective rather than an ethno-religious viewpoint they may begin making headway in alleviating the civil strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims, especially in Iraq. Re-directing US and European attention toward the powerful states of Iran and Saudi Arabia may be the most successful way to bring about stable relations between Sunnis and Shias. Especially after the substantial withdrawal of Coalition troops from Iraq and the subsequent violence, it is apparent the problem cannot be solved without getting to the heart of the conflict which is being fueled by states like Iran and Saudi Arabia and political entrepreneurs within. Only by addressing the political ambitions, power struggles, and use of ethno-religious divisions to mask personal and state interests of powerful Middle Eastern states will the Sunni-Shia divide finally fade.
Ms. Laura Wicks graduated from the M.S. Program in Global Affairs at New York University with a concentration in International Relations and Transnational Security.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Christoph Suess: American Success in Iraq Shuts Europe Up
- Markus Drake: Europe and Iraq: A Re-Connect
- D. Korski and R. Gowan: On Iraq, It's Time to Call Europe