In late September 1980, Saddam Hussein (Iraq’s then president and dictator) ordered Iraqi military forces to invade Iran. The decision was made partly in reaction to Iran’s revolutionary propaganda campaign, border clashes and Saddam’s seriously flawed judgment. After the fighting degenerated into a bloody stalemate, the conflict came to an end in August 1988 when Iran reluctantly asked for a ceasefire. The war devastated the economies of both nations, the monetary cost to the combatants was over $200 billion. The conflict took horrific human toll, inflicting approximately one million casualties.
Regrettably, Saddam Hussein learned nothing from the encounter. Perhaps believing that a big mistake deserves to be followed by a larger one, he sent his forces into Kuwait in August 1990. The Iraqi forces were soon crushed and expelled by a coalition of forces led by the United States. After hostilities ended in 1991, Iraq began to slowly decay economically as the uncompromising government of Saddam Hussein defied UN demands and sanctions.
In early 2003, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq quickly overran the country. As it turned out, the Bush administration’s thinking on the justification and necessity for the invasion was extremely faulty. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Saddam’s brutal secular dictatorship was not a supporter of al-Qaeda. It soon became obvious that it was much easier to go into Iraq than to get out. Attempting to maintain order in a fractured, hostile country while trying to set up a functioning government proved to be a long, costly and daunting task for the American military and embassy staff.
In 2014, two years after the U.S. military withdrawal, the nation building effort is in trouble because Iraq is sliding closer to breaking apart. The country has 22 million eligible voters. It is estimated that in the parliamentary elections held on April 30, the turnout was 60%. The 9,000 candidates gave voters lots of choices. The election offers what may be the final chance to move toward a more inclusive political environment. To be successful, the lengthy process of forming a government has to include forcing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to change his policies or else replace him. If neither occurs, the April 30 election could be last one held in a unified Iraq.
Maliki is four years into his second term as prime minister. Since the U.S. departure, Maliki has tightened his grip on power while estranging Sunni and Kurdish minorities. If he gets a third term and maintains his current policies, the Kurds in the north may be tempted to cut their frosty ties with the central government. At the same time, al-Qaeda affiliated groups are trying to consolidate their hold on the Sunni parts of western Iraq.
Maliki has control over the central government budget, the army and police. His policies have increased sectarian and ethnic tensions as he favored Shia interests over those of the Sunnis and Kurds. As the security situation deteriorated, he reinvented himself as the defender of law and order. Although he helped create the problems, he publicizes himself as the best person qualified to handle them. He has taken to blaming rivals for the country’s difficulties as the violence increases. According to UN data, 8,868 Iraqis were killed in 2013. During the first quarter of 2014, 2,000 people have died. Approximately 400,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in al-Anbar province. The spillover from the war in Syria has made the situation worse.
Maliki advertises himself as a strong Shiite leader able to defeat opponents and keep the Sunnis under control. The result has been a dysfunctional government that is unwilling to put the nation’s interest above sectarian and tribal ones. Maliki has been a good friend of Iran and has supported the Assad regime in Syria with weapons and supplies. While Iran would like to see a friendly government in Bagdad, it also wants an Iraqi government that is in charge of a cohesive country, not one that is ineptly losing control of major parts of the nation.
Many in Iraq fear that Maliki is trying to reestablish one-man rule in the country. The dream of a stable, prosperous Iraq is fading as violence increases and sectarian tensions rise. Although the U.S. has lost much influence, it has to work prevent the breakup of Iraq. Iraq’s next prime minister has to be able to halt the slide toward disintegration and start rebuilding national unity and inclusive politics. Unfortunately, the present prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, is not the person to get the job done.