Addressing Iraq’s Disease — Iran and AQI are only the Symptoms

As we pass the 10th anniversary of the American overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, it seems the mainstream media has temporarily awoken from its longstanding coma regarding Iraq coverage. Yet the coverage still focuses on the wrong issues — rehashing the crimes of the past or dabbling in ridiculous counterfactuals instead of addressing what is happening in the country right now.

Too many of the few mainstream media reports on Iraq focus on Iraq's past and not its present and future.

Too many of the few mainstream media reports on Iraq focus on the state’s past and not its present and future.

It is the present and possible futures of Iraq that should concern us more than outdated foreign policy arguments from our past.

Even the few commentators who do attempt to focus on Iraq’s present don’t seem to be addressing the real issues. While some analysts concentrate on the steady flow of horrific attacks by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQI), others, like commentator Rachel Maddow during her appearance on last week’s Real Time with Bill Maher, bemoan the pernicious influence of Iran on the post-Saddam Iraqi state.

But both of these issues, AQI and Iran, are symptoms of a greater, domestic disease—sectarian division. They are not the prime disease. Of course both issues contribute to the worsening of sectarian divisions and are problems that need to be addressed. However, despite its recent successful attacks, AQI does not exert any substantial influence or receive any widespread support within Iraq. Nor is Iraq merely an Iranian puppet—President Nouri Al-Maliki is first and foremost an Iraqi nationalist (and Arab, as opposed to the Persian Iranians) whose interests often align with Iran.

So what then is this domestic “disease” that is the true barrier to Iraq’s progression as a state?

The various ethnic and religious factions of Iraq seem incapable of coming together in any meaningful way for the betterment of a stable, united Iraqi state. Maliki’s presidency has been fraught with corruption, authoritarianism, and political and sectarian purges. It isn’t unusual to hear an Iraqi compare the current head of state unfavorably to Hussein himself.

For example, a Kurdish acquaintance recently wrote on Facebook:

“10 years ago the Iraq war (Operation Iraqi Freedom) started. It was the beginning of the fall of a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and the rise of the new dictator.”

Sentiments like this do not bode well for Iraq’s future.

There may be a silver lining to Maliki’s controversial tenure and its opposition, however. Former enemies have united in a shaky alliance against the Shia autocrat. Kurds, Sunni Arabs and anti-Maliki Shia (such as secular leaders like Ayad Allawi) are working together and defending each other from Maliki’s persecution. Such cooperation may be a preview of a future multi-ethnic, multi-religious stable Iraqi state.

Yet contention still remains even within this anti-Maliki alliance. Issues of Kurdish autonomy, oil-sharing profits, and border demarcation have yet to be resolved. And a future Iraq cannot survive successfully until the “Kurdish question” (as some call it) is resolved.

So while Iran and AQI continue to act as stumbling blocks to the Iraqi state’s progression, their roles would be greatly reduced if these more essential domestic issues were addressed. Improved security and decreased tension between Sunni Arabs and the rest of the state would provide AQI little room to operate within. Also, an Iraqi government that included strong Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and secular Shia leaders would be much less likely to be as sympathetic to Iran as the current Iraqi state.

Sadly, as nice as this potential future sounds, at the global community’s current pace, it isn’t very likely to be realized anytime soon, if ever.


  1. Charles Fisher says

    Wondering if i could pick tour brain a little…What real and concrete steps do you think could be taken by the Iraqi government, and what policies do you think the U.S. could adopt to promote stability?

    • Bill Rice says

      I’m not an expert on Iraq so this analysis is probably not the best, but:

      1.) The U.S. State Dept. can be more proactive in trying to facilitate dialogue between the various factions in Iraq. Europe and regional players too (like Saudi or Turkey).
      2.) A real cohesive party needs to be formalized to challenge Maliki and undo his negative affects on the government
      3.) All parties need to come to terms with the crimes that occurred during the civil war that broke out post-Saddam’s. I’m not saying that no justice should be served, but some compromise and reconciliation has to happen in order for Iraq to move forward. That doesn’t happen through prosecuting key Sunni Arab leaders (which is what Maliki has done) for war crimes.
      4.) The Kurdish question has to be properly dealt with…by the Kurds themselves. Do they want to be a part of Iraq or not? From interning with their DC office, I know a good deal of their leadership feel like independence is the ultimate goal. For many Kurds I spoke with, working within the Iraqi state was just a temporary means towards independence for them. The Kurdish region has to decide whether it wants to be an autonomous part of Iraq or truly independent. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to resolve the key disputes between it and the rest of Iraq (oil sharing, borders, representation and gov. in the border regions).
      5. Of course security is a big concern. But I feel like this will more successfully be achieved with greater political reconciliation between Iraq’s various factions. The same goes for functioning government services and civil society.

      And all of this is easier said than done of course.


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