In the midst of the sudden and bloody surge of violence that has plagued Iraq's Anbar province over the past two weeks, reportedly claiming nearly 250 lives, the country's Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq, one of the few Sunni leaders in Nouri Al-Maliki's Shiite majority government, told a group of US government and military officials in Washington on Tuesday that the root cause of the bloody sectarianism that has engulfed the country is quite simple to discern: the US and its 2003 intervention. And that, he added, is why the US must help with Baghdad's fight against the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Stat of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"You [the US] have a legal and moral responsibility towards Iraq because Iraq was a united country, and you came to remove the Saddam Hussein regime [to instil] a democracy," Al-Mutlaq told reporters and government officials at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace on Tuesday. "In fact, instead of doing that, you destroyed a country."
It was somehow peculiar to hear these tough words being spoken by an official whose visit had the primary purpose of securing a strong US commitment to aiding the violence-ridden country in confronting Al-Qaeda's growing influence in its Western provinces. Indeed, Iraq's second-highest official flew to Washington in order to lay out to the American leadership a series of requests, some of which are worthy of notice because they point to a major, if not crucial, aspect of Iraq's state of affairs today.
In addition to more weapons, the Iraqi government is urging the US to step in and aid Al-Maliki and his government in a comprehensive fight against sectarianism. Sectarianism, Al-Mutlaq said, is the root cause of all evils, even worse than terrorism, because terrorism stems from sectarianism. And sectarianism in Iraq is, he said, US-made, which makes the US morally accountable for educating, instructing and even pressuring the Iraqi political class into abandoning its sectarian rhetoric in favour of a more inclusive and fairer political system.
US military involvement is not the answer
Al-Mutlaq's words come in the midst of a deep cultural and political crisis in the US in connection with the surge of violence within Iraq. Since the outbreak of violence in Fallujah and Ramadi at the beginning of this month, US government officials, retired military officers, academics and experts from all political backgrounds have been forced to reconsider the 2003 invasion, its significance and whether it made any sense at all. In 2004, US marines fought in Fallujah what many in Washington still see as one of the deadliest and fiercest battles ever fought by the US military since Vietnam. Seeing the city and the province surrounding it being overtaken by Al-Qaeda's forces has left many with a sour aftertaste.
Last week, General Ray Odierno, the former head of the US Army in Iraq, said that the US should not send any troops into the country, a position that US Secretary of State John F. Kerry himself also supported. At the same time, however, the former Army general also noted that "it's disappointed all of us to see the deterioration of security inside Iraq." Some veterans are indeed disappointed, wondering whether it was all worth it, while others have urged the Pentagon to employ a limited, but decisive, amount of air and ground power in order to support Al-Maliki's efforts against the insurgents.
James M. Dubik, a former Army lieutenant general, wrote this week in the Washington Post that: "If the United States does not get involved, al-Qaeda is likely to win…. This means a temporary and limited use of U.S. air power… in conjunction with a ground offensive that includes conventional and special operations forces."
However appealing it may seem to Nouri Al-Maliki's government or to the Washington political and military establishment, a new US military involvement in Iraq is perhaps the worst option. Having US troops enter Iraq again would only show that the US decision to withdraw in 2011 was a wrong and miscalculated choice. More importantly, a renewed US military effort would further alienate Iraq's Sunni population from the Shiite-led government, and it would further heighten sectarian tensions by showing that the central government in Baghdad is incapable of managing its domestic crises and that it is forced to call onto an external – and formerly occupying – power for help and assistance.
Reconciliation: the road to Iraqi national unity
Iraqis need to be given the opportunity to manage their crises by themselves. Obviously, ISIS's gains in the Western Anbar province are not an entirely domestic issue. In addition to being originally fomented by the violence in neighbouring Syria, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents have made it clear that their ambitions are international, as they aim to break down the Syrian-Iraqi border and forge a united front against Shiite-led governments in Damascus and Baghdad. But this does not necessarily imply the need for an international and violent response to the crisis: It simply demonstrates the need for a truly inclusive and democratic political process in Iraq, where all religious and ethnic groups can be fairly and equally represented.
Sectarianism in Iraq is indeed a real problem, and Al-Mutlaq is probably correct in blaming the outbreak of violence on the American occupation and in holding the US government morally and legally responsible. But US military intervention is not the answer.
The White House can help, however. Al-Maliki's government needs to be pressured, and none other than the US is best positioned to do that. The leadership in Baghdad needs to understand that the only path to a united and peaceful Iraq is the unconditional embrace of reconciliation among Sunnis and Shiites as the ultimate goal. Sunni grievances with the central government in Baghdad ought to be addressed; Sunnis should feel that they have equal access to power and influence in a country that they obviously feel is theirs and in which they consequently ought to have a say.
Granting Iraqi Sunnis access to power and influence will necessarily provide them with a real stake in the country's security and stability. Once they feel they are treated equally and fairly, Iraqi Sunnis are more likely to join with Al-Maliki's fight against Al-Qaeda in a truly national and united effort to keep terrorism out of Iraq's borders. This can happen, but only once all sectors of Iraqi society genuinely feel that they have a stake and, more importantly, a say in their country's fate.
In April, Iraqis will return to the polls to choose their next national government. Let us hope that the government in Baghdad will, by that time, have taken serious steps towards national reconciliation without US military involvement. More importantly, let us hope that the elections will be fair and transparent and that they will provide all sectors of Iraqi society with the opportunity to shape their own future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.