The Next Iraq War

By Dehghanpisheh, Babak; Lake, Eli | Newsweek, December 12, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Next Iraq War


Dehghanpisheh, Babak, Lake, Eli, Newsweek


Byline: Babak Dehghanpisheh and Eli Lake

With U.S. troops set to leave Baghdad, Sunnis and Shiites race toward a bloody showdown.

A convoy carrying Qassim Fahdawi sped down the desert highway toward Baghdad last month, but roughly 12 miles west of the capital, a roadside bomb blasted the vehicles. Fahdawi, the governor of Anbar province, escaped unharmed, but three of his bodyguards were injured.

Fahdawi is no stranger to assassination plots. But this time was different. The bomb went off near an Army checkpoint manned by soldiers from the Muthanna Brigade, a notorious, largely Shiite unit that has been accused of human-rights violations against Sunnis.

"I was previously targeted by Al Qaeda," Fahdawi said the next day in an interview with a local TV station. "But this time, unfortunately, I was targeted by ex-militia military elements?...?who do not want the best for Iraq."

Roughly a month before the last American troops are set to leave the country, the attempt on Fahdawi's life appears to be yet another sign that the vicious, sectarian bloodletting that nearly tore Iraq apart almost five years ago may be set to resume. Only this time, there will be no American military presence to mitigate the carnage. With the remaining 20,000 American troops in Iraq set to depart by Jan. 1, the United States--despite a war that has cost roughly $1 trillion and taken the lives of close to 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis--is set to leave behind a country still on the brink of chaos.

Rather than decreasing sectarian tensions, Iraqi leaders appear to be pouring fuel on the fire. In recent weeks the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has arrested more than 600 alleged former Baathists who are suspected of plotting against the central government.

To many Iraqi Sunnis, who are already wary of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, the crackdown looks like an all-out witch hunt. "I'm afraid a clash will happen in a very violent way," says Salih Mutlaq, a deputy prime minister who is Sunni.

It could get even messier. The reigniting of sectarian tensions could easily draw in regional heavyweights like Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are locked in a heated battle for power and influence across the Middle East. In fact, there are already disturbing signs that the two countries are preparing for a showdown inside Iraq once the American military pulls out.

This wasn't how things were supposed to be. Over the summer there were lengthy and labored talks with Iraqi officials about how many troops would stay behind in Anbar and the Kurdish provinces in the country's north. Neither the U.S. government nor its Iraqi counterparts anticipated a complete military withdrawal. But as the weeks passed, American officials were unable to get the Iraqis to agree to legal immunity for troops who remained--a necessary condition, according to the White House. To be legally binding, the Status of Forces agreement had to be approved by the Iraqi Parliament, according to American legal experts. And no Iraqi politician, certainly not Maliki, seemed willing to stake his political future on supporting legal immunity for American soldiers.

Of course, even after a full withdrawal, the United States will still have a sizable diplomatic presence in the country. A whopping 16,000 American personnel will work at the embassy in Baghdad, the vast majority of whom will be security contractors. There will also be some 200 American military personnel who will help train the Iraqi military to use the tanks, F-16s, and other equipment it has purchased from the United States. …

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