Iraq still bleeding a decade later
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the United States-led war in Iraq.
A decade ago, President George W. Bush had already sent a number of aircraft carriers towards the Persian Gulf and advisers and planners were choosing ground targets for the first “shock and awe” air strikes.
The US military no longer has a formidable presence in Iraq, just 4000 or so troops are stationed in two bases.
The last frontline American soldier stepped across the border to Kuwait on December 18, 2011.
All these years down the track Iraq has been dragged through fire and pain, suffered from bloody sectarian violence and felt abject despair. Hundreds of thousands have died and many Iraqis fled the war-torn country to become refugees.
It was not realised until dictator Saddam Hussein was deposed that ethnic tensions had been lying dormant, and were about to explode.
The underlying ferocity of Sunni and Shia hatred and Kurdish autonomous ambitions is obvious in hindsight, but the devolution of Iraq into areas of influence along purely ethnic and sectarian lines is truly shocking.
A region transformed
In 2003, the Middle East geopolitical dynamic was transformed. For decades Iran and Iraq struggled for domination, neither quite being able to gain the upper hand.
So when the Americans destroyed Iraqi military power and withdrew from the region in 2011, Iran was left as its dominant conventional military force.
Shia Muslims in Iraq are supported politically by the regional hegemon, Iran, whose population is majority Shiite, which fits nicely with Iraq’s large Shiite population. After the US withdrawal, Tehran filled the influence vacuum by helping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party into power in Baghdad.
Even the internal Iraq dynamics changed considerably. The Kurdish enclave to the north, isolated by the Baathist regime, became almost self-governing after the American invasion.
The Kurds sit atop huge energy deposits but are only grudgingly included in Baghdad’s politics – Kurdish people are not exactly popular in the Middle East.
With political infighting being what it is, complete accommodation of every ethno-sectarian groups’ wishes is difficult. In order to halt a wider conflict and retain Shia power, Mr al Maliki is playing the Sunnis and Kurds against each other.
The Sunnis, seen as affiliated with Hussein, were cut from the political process after the invasion of 2003. The then new Iraq government, consisting of mostly Iranian-backed Shia, was keen to keep them on the political outskirts. However, neither wanted the Kurds to gain more political power.
To reign in the increasingly autonomous Kurds, Shia-dominated Baghdad decided to include the Sunnis after 2007. It was assumed a dispute between Shia and Kurds over oil rights in Iraq’s north would frustrate their political ambitions in Baghdad.
However, things have not worked out quite so smoothly for the al Maliki government. Sunni political parties won the most seats in 2010 and tried, unsuccessfully, to conveniently align with Kurdish groups at the time.
Simultaneously, the Kurds wanted greater security responsibility in their traditional lands, leading Mr al Maliki to agree to talks with both groups to defuse the tension, but issues remain.
Fragile future for Iraq
Future political stability depends on three ethno-sectarian groups agreeing on a direction for their country and renouncing violence.
The Kurds want to export their energy to the world, but cannot do so without Baghdad’s approval; their lands are a long way from any logistical hub.
And Sunni Iraqis are demanding equality in a skewed political system essentially controlled by Tehran.
The Sunnis and Shia will continue to struggle for dominance. While the Shia still has the backing of a somewhat waning Iran, Sunni unrest spilling from Syria's civil war could jeopardise the relative calm in Iraq.
A rise in Sunni-led violence would threaten each group, and none want a return to the bloodshed of the past decade. The Shia-led government faces a future in which playing the Kurds and Sunnis against each other might only loosen the tensions, rather than break them.
Strictly speaking, the future of Iraq is not going to be shaped by people with a vision to unite the country. Sectarian differences are too deep for any Shia, Sunni or Kurd to overcome. Each will try to pull the country in the direction best serving their interests at the expense of the others.
Ultimately, Iraq’s sectarian splits were only triggered again a decade ago when the Americans arrived, not created. Unless the groups find a common cause Iraq will remain a broken nation.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict