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The US and Al-Qaeda: Unveiling the root causes of sectarian violence in Iraq

Only days after Al-Qaeda publicly disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the militant organisation whose members have been fighting in the midst of the three-year-old Syrian conflict, provoking a highly-destabilizing 'spillover effect' in the western part of neighbouring Iraq, the state of US policy in Iraq remains highly unclear.

On 5 February, Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran at the US Department of State testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs for over two hours in an attempt to make sense of what shape US policy in Iraq should take, a country where more than eight years of invasion seem to have fueled, rather than curbed, terrorism and sectarian violence.

"We intend to help the Iraqis in their efforts to defeat ISIL over the long term [by] pressing the national leadership in the highest possible levels to develop a holistic security, political, economic strategy to isolate extremists from the population," McGurk told the Committee. "This means supporting local tribal fighters, incorporating those fighters into the security services and committing to April elections to be held on time."

The Obama administration's approach is one that, according to current discussions in Washington, will seek to 'solve' the Iraqi crisis from a distance, without getting too involved in a situation that has, for the most part, fallen out of control.

During the hearing, the State Department official had to face a series of questions from disgruntled members of Congress, the majority of whom have hinted at a general will to let the Iraqi government take care of the situation by itself, with little or no involvement by the US.

While discussing last year's alleged storming and killing of Iranian MEK dissidents at Camp Ashraf by Iraqi forces – now transferred to Camp Liberty -, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher sharply noted: "As far as I'm concerned, and as far as many people here in Washington are concerned, [Nouri Al-] Maliki is an accomplice to the murders that are going on, and as an accomplice we should not be begging him to have a residual force of US troops in order to help his regime."

But perhaps better highlighting the level of divisiveness and misunderstanding when it comes to Iraq policy here in Washington, Rep. Rohrabacher went on to ask: "Why does the United States feel that we need to become part of this insanity?…Let them kill each other."

The answer McGurk gave was a simple one: that oil, Al-Qaeda and Iran are the vital interests that are still pulling the US towards Iraq. But the real, though unspoken, answer is that the US should perhaps stand by its obligation to solve a crisis that it helped unravel in the first place by making the wrong decisions following the fall of the Saddam regime.

The roots of sectarian violence

The roots of Iraq's current instability can be easily traced back to the 2003 US invasion, and more precisely, to how the US government at the time decided to address the post-Saddam quandary. Paul Bremmer, the then-head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, opted for banning all members of the Ba'ath Party from public office with the expectation that this would move the country towards a total removal of the Saddam regime. Instead, this process led to a rise in hostile sectarian sentiments that saw Iraqi Sunnis deeply resentful of the US decision to take power away from them, handing it over to the country's Shiites.

In addition to igniting the sectarian violence that still plagues the country to this day, this decision created the ideal venue for Al-Qaeda. According to recent conversations between the author and former US government officials, the Bremmer months saw Sunni leaders approaching US authorities to offer their support in stabilising the region, but were simply turned down.

And this is where Al-Qaeda stepped in. By making use of the power vacuum created by US policy at the time, Al-Qaeda caught the opportunity and established itself as the main unopposed player in the western half of the country.

"When we decided we were not going to make deals with the Sunnis of Anbar, that's when we lost their assistance," Michael Ryan, a former official in both the Defense and State departments, told the Middle East Monitor. Ryan also points to how, following Bremmer's departure and the consequent troop surges, the US eventually realised that including the Sunnis would have been a preferred course of action.

"After the surge, we managed to get a lot of help from the Sunnis of Anbar. They went after Al-Qaeda, and we put them on our payroll," Ryan said.

Unfortunately, the change of strategy may have come too late. By then, sectarian tensions were already quite high, and the seeds of unrest had already been planted.

Iran's geostrategic interests

When trying to assess the roots of Iraq's crisis and the possible ways to address them, it is important not to overlook the role played by Iran. When the Bremmer leadership took over the country in 2003 granting privileges to Iraq's Shiite population, this created an opening for Al-Qaeda, but it also paved the way for Iran's entry into the picture.

One of the main points of discussion currently taking place in Washington is the question of how to put an end to Iran's strong influence on the Al-Maliki government, an influence that has turned into a major geopolitical battle in the region, with stakes going as far as Syria and Lebanon.

"We're the ones responsible…for making Iran the hegemonic power in the region…and once we blew up the minority Sunni regime in Iraq it was only obvious that Shias in Iraq would gravitate [towards] the Shias in Iran," Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel said during Wednesday's hearing.

But seeing Iran's growing influence following Saddam's overthrow simply in terms of a Sunni-Shiite power exchange runs the risk of missing the larger picture. Following November's nuclear deal between Tehran and the West, Iran has engaged in an ambitious effort aimed at reasserting itself as a key regional player. In December, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif flew to Gulf kingdoms to offer partnership and cooperation; last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Tehran to strengthen energy cooperation and possibly clarify Syria-related matters. This is to show that Iran may be engaged in an overture that goes beyond Sunni-Shiite lines.

However, Iran's influence within Iraq – in some ways the gateway to the Arab world – is an important facilitator in these openings. The question then becomes one of how to limit Tehran's bearing on Baghdad.

In that regard, the US will need to work on a parallel track. In addition to standing up to its obligation of assisting Iraqis achieve a truly reconciliatory public discourse, Washington will also need to adopt a stronger rhetoric when it comes to Iranian meddling in Iraq's affairs. Pressuring Al-Maliki's government can help. But the real breakthrough will come only once Washington realises that a "let them kill each other" approach will not lead very far: stepping in politically, offering real incentives that will make Baghdad more independent of Tehran, are the only way forward if Iraq and the United States truly wish to drive extremist organisations out of the region.

Ramy Srour writes for MEMO from Washington. Follow him on Twitter. He is the founder and managing editor of Foreign Policy Today.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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