In April of this year, Iraq held its first free election since the 2011 withdrawal of US troops. Many hoped that these elections would have been a sign that the young democracy has continued to grow and gain traction among Iraqis without direct US support; however, they have instead proven that Iraq’s stability is quickly deteriorating. The world has watched as ethnic and religious violence has erupted in many of Iraq’s provinces and as the Al Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has taken control of many major cities. Many arguments can be made blaming Prime Minister Maliki’s policies while in office; however, this violence is just a symptom of two much deeper issues. One, Iraq, while traditionally lacking strong national unity, has been particularly polarized among ethnic, religious, and political lines over the last few years. And, two, Iran is a key player in Iraqi politics and, at this point, it is in Iran’s best interest to see a fractured, weak Iraq headed by Shiite leadership rather than a strong, democratic, and politically diverse Iraq. The culmination of these two factors is a death sentence for one of the United States’ key allies in the region.
First and foremost, Iraq’s lack of national unity has contributed to unsuccessful elections and heightened violence. Controlled by Ottoman and then British forces until its independence in 1958, Iraq, in the bigger picture of history, has only existed for a very short period of time and never had a chance to naturally develop a sense of national pride. Instead, the Iraqi people began to strongly identify along religious lines beginning with Islamic influence in the 7th century and failed to build a unified national identity while under Ottoman and then British control in the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition, tensions between Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish groups in the country have always been due to the marginalization of Kurdish Iraqis by both the Sunni and Shiite groups, Shiite Muslims by Sunni Muslims during the rule of Sadam Hussein, and, currently, the marginalization of the Sunnis by the Shiites in Maliki’s government. Throw in a structure of government that doesn’t seem to mesh well with Iraq’s preexisting ethnic, social, and religious lines, withdraw nearly all direct US support from the country, and place Syria’s civil war on its border and you’re bound to see an increase in violence.
Secondly, Iranian political influence in Iraq has been alive and well since US withdrawal and even played a crucial role in Shiite Prime Minister Maliki’s reelection back in 2010 in which Iran helped Maliki gain enough parliamentary seats to form a government. It’s no secret that Iran, a Shiite nation, would like to see a Shiite controlled Iraq and that, ultimately, a religiously and ethnically diverse and strong Iraqi government with close ties to the United States pose a threat to Iranian interests in the region. However, the most recent elections, held on April 30th, prove to be problematic because, although Maliki’s Shiite coalition won just over 90 seats, they did not gain enough seats to form a government. Without a government formed, choosing the next prime minister, keeping in mind that Maliki would like to keep power and serve a third term, will be nearly impossible with how divided and polarized Iraq’s current parliament is. Therefore, it may be in Iran’s best interest to try and keep Iraqi politics polarized and divided rather than risk a government that either becomes Sunni controlled or develops into a diverse, strong unit with closer ties to the United States.
The current violence that has erupted in Iraq this year is simply a symptom of much bigger problems in Iraq. The withdrawal of US troops before the country was able to build up its political infrastructure and a system that does not seem to mesh well with Iraq’s preexisting identities, it’s easy to see how this young democracy is quickly sinking as the world watches. In addition, it is also serves as an example and a reminder of how salient Sunni and Shiite identities are in the region and shows the massive amount of influence that Shiite controlled Iran has in the region. Despite all of these major setbacks, all is not lost. If the Obama administration can take a proactive role and answer Maliki’s pleas for help and support, Iraq may still be saved; however, only time will tell if recent political pressure faced by the Obama administration will push this President into action or if he will step back and watch as Iraq crumbles.