By Barbara Slavin
While Americans were celebrating their 240th year of independence with cookouts, trips to the movies and peaceful fireworks, Iraqis were digging victims out of the rubble after one of the worst bombings in that country’s history.
At least 175 people are now confirmed dead, hundreds more injured from the suicide bombing Sunday in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad. The victims included many children out with their parents in the cool of the night after breaking the Ramadan fast. Other casualties were sitting in outdoor cafes watching the European soccer championship.
Suicide bombings are hardly uncommon in Iraq and most Americans now tune out terrorism unless it strikes closer to home or in a European city that they have visited or might want to see in the future. But Americans retain an obligation to care about Iraqis after the government U.S. citizens elected in 2000 overthrew the Iraqi leadership three years later and failed to establish security.
The invasion was justified at the time by assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false. It is also worth recalling just how poorly the George W. Bush administration planned for the removal of Saddam Hussein and the hubris that accompanied the Iraq invasion in its initial stages.
Bush’s and then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s willingness to sign off on an invasion that deployed fewer than 200,000 U.S. and British troops – less than half that recommended in proportion to the population compared to successful peacekeeping operations elsewhere – doomed this exercise in regime change from the start.
At the time, Bush and some other administration officials chose to see Iraq as the beginning of a democratic transformation in the region. At a closed-door White House meeting shortly after Saddam Hussein fell, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asserted “we’re going to fix the Middle East the way we fixed Europe after World II,” as this analyst reported in a 2007 book. Given that Europe was prostrate and flooded with allied troops after the war, the comparison was both historically inaccurate and woefully irresponsible.
Instead of Iraq becoming the first of a series of democratic dominoes, it has instead become the incubator of increasingly virulent extremist groups. The Sunni heartland of the country –never fully pacified by U.S. troops, who were blocked by Turkey from entering Iraq from the north – gave birth first to an al-Qaeda offshoot and then to the group that calls itself Islamic State (ISIS).
Led by a former U.S. prisoner of war, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS has set about trying to overturn the Shiite-led government in Baghdad that replaced Saddam’s Sunni Baathist dictatorship. Having lost about half the territory its self-styled caliphate once held in Iraq and in Syria to a U.S.-led coalition, ISIS is encouraging suicidal attacks by adherents in Turkey, Europe, South Asia and the United States.
For Iraqis, the Sunday bombing was particularly dispiriting, following the recapture of Fallujah, a tough Sunni town and early ISIS stronghold that is thought to have been the source of prior suicide attack plots on Baghdad.
Nussaibah Younis, who directs an Iraq project at the Atlantic Council, noted that the current Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, “had successfully distracted the Iraqi public from the political crisis in Baghdad with the fight to liberate Fallujah, but the devastating bombings in Karada have once again left the prime minister exposed to the wrath of the Iraqi people….The public anger towards government corruption and incompetence is likely to spill over into renewed public demonstrations demanding radical reforms or the dismissal of the current government,” Younis told this analyst.
While Younis said she thought Abadi – who is supported both by the U.S. and Iran – would hang on in office, the continued violence incentivizes those educated Iraqis who have not already fled to leave the country or migrate to the safer south or Kurdish north.
A country that then top Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz once bragged would greet Americans as “liberators” and be able to finance its own reconstruction with oil revenues is now in such dire straits that the State Department has organized a donors’ conference later this month in Washington to try to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to care for 10 million Iraqis in need of outside humanitarian help.
It will be years, if not decades, before Iraq is peaceful enough to begin a real recovery. It is possible that it will not remain a unitary state.
Syria, where nearly half a million people have died and half the population is displaced, faces an even more uncertain future as fear of ISIS has overcome the will of much of the international community to push for the replacement of brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad.
It is doubtful at this stage that the Barack Obama administration or its successor would be willing to send large numbers of U.S. ground troops back to the region. But the U.S. must continue financial, intelligence and limited military support to at least mitigate humanitarian suffering and continue to whittle away at ISIS-held territory.
Now that ISIS has also struck the birthplace of Islam in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis too must shift focus from combatting Iranian allies in Yemen to a full-throated campaign against a group that kills Sunni and Shia Muslims indiscriminately. The Saudi effort should include exporting a version of Islam that never condones the murder of innocents, whatever their religion or ethnic background.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.