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Iraq: Have The Shiites Overreached?

The American withdrawal was going to lead to a time of testing in Iraq in any case, but political overreaching by the Shiite majority is making a bad situation worse.

During the first years of the American presence, it was the Sunnis who fatally misread the power realities of Iraq.  Having been dominant in Iraq since Ottoman times, many Sunnis overestimated their demographic weight in Iraq and underestimated the ability of the once-despised Shiites to organize and hold power.

That delusion was blasted away in waves of sectarian strife and ethnic cleansing; the Sunnis painfully woke up to some unpleasant realities and ultimately accepted that the days of Sunni domination in Iraq had come to an end.

But lately it is the Shiites who seem to be overplaying their hand.  The balance of power is changing in the Middle East in ways that strengthen Iraq’s Sunnis and weaken the Shiites.  Iran is isolated, and its client in Syria is on the ropes.  Turkey has reentered the region as a Sunni power, increasingly hostile both to Assad and to Iran.

If (perhaps when) Assad falls, the balance of power in Iraq will shift.  Bordered by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, Iraq’s Sunnis will have access to arms and supplies that the government cannot interdict.  Turkey, deeply concerned about Iraq’s Kurdish region, will want a stronger hand in the country. The US, deeply concerned to bolster Iraq’s central government while we still had a military role in the country, will be less committed to the government — especially if it is seen as tilting toward Iran.

Iraq — and Syria also, for that matter — could be facing an extended period of ethnic and religious strife.  Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all have interests in Iraq; all can find clients to support.  Lebanon is the unhappy example of a Middle Eastern country where domestic factions supported by foreign patrons fought for years.  As Assad falls, Turkey rises, and the Saudis and other Gulf powers intervene, the “Shi’a Crescent” that Sunnis once feared may become a “Chaos Crescent” from the Mediterranean to Iran.

A slower US military withdrawal would have made this less likely; Americans are likely to regret leaving so precipitously (though once out of Iraq we should avoid going back in), and the Shiites may come to regret letting us leave.

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  • Corlyss

    “Americans are likely to regret leaving so precipitously (though once out of Iraq we should avoid going back in)”

    Certainly depends on what Americans. The only one who counts certainly won’t, nor will his infantile base. For them, the collapse of Iraq will be proof positive that the involvement was a mistake, if for no other reason than it was begun by a Republican. If, and only if, the tardy and wrong-footed Obama takes on Iran, will Democrats think the war good enough to fight. But of course they will make a hash of the effort and after some perfunctory noise and a lot of dead military (their way of downsizing troop strength) they’ll sue for peace, call it victory, and have another example of a favorite mantra: “War Never Solves Anything.”

  • marinaman

    It is true that any action taken by Obama will be limp wrist-ed and a failure. The Democrats lose wars, and have tried to lose every war since Vietnam.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Yes, right now the Sunni Shia picture in the Middle East hangs in the balance because Assad’s fate is not settled. Its hard not to feel that the Sunnis are on a roll and it must be remembered that Alawites are not Shiites. If Assad falls there are going to be some bloody consequences. Yet Assad may not fall precisely because he and the Alawites have their back against the wall. It is easy to imagine a Sunni ‘crescent’ from Egypt to Turkey with Syria in between and Shiite dominated Iraq therefore allying itself with Iran. Of course it is not hard to imagine Egypt and Turkey spending all their time trying to dominate that Sunni crescent. And Iraq trying to play both ends to their own benefit.

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