Iraq War Effect on the Middle East

The unintended results of US-led invasion

Iraq war’s effect on the Middle East has been profound, but not quite in the way intended by the architects of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

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Sunni-Shiite Tension

Iraqi Shiites chant slogans as a picture of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is seen during a protest over the bombing of a Shiite holy shrine on February 22, 2006 in the Sadr city neighborhood of Baghdad. Wathiq Khuzaie /Getty Images

Top positions in Saddam Hussein’s regime were occupied by Sunni Arabs, a minority in Iraq, but traditionally the dominant group going back to the Ottoman times. The US-led invasion enabled the Shiite Arab majority to claim the government, the first time in the modern Middle East that Shiites came to power in any Arab country. This historic event empowered Shiites across the region, in turn attracting suspicion and hostility of Sunni regimes.

Some Iraqi Sunnis launched an armed rebellion targeting the new Shiite-dominated government and foreign forces. The spiraling violence grew into a bloody and destructive civil war between Sunni and Shiite militias, which strained sectarian relations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries with a mixed Sunni-Shiite population.

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The Emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq

Iraqis stand around the site of a car bomb explosion on February 13, 2007 at Shorja market in Baghdad, Iraq. Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty Images

Suppressed under Saddam’s brutal police state, religious extremists of all colors began popping out in the chaotic years after the regime’s fall. For Al Qaeda, the arrival of a Shiite government and the presence of US troops created a dream environment. Posing as the protector of Sunnis, Al Qaeda created alliances with both Islamist and secular Sunni insurgent groups, and began seizing territory in Sunni tribal heartland of north-western Iraq.

Al Qaeda’s brutal tactics and extremist religious agenda soon alienated many Sunnis who turned against the group, but a distinct Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda, known as the "Islamic State in Iraq", has survived. Specializing in car bombing attacks, the group continues to target government forces and Shiites, while expanding its operations into neighboring Syria.

  • Guide To Al Qaeda in the Middle East

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Ascendancy of Iran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a visit to Lebanon, October 13, 2010. Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

The fall of the Iraqi regime marked a critical point in Iran’s ascendancy to a regional superpower. Saddam Hussein was Iran’s greatest regional enemy, and the two sides fought a bitter 8-year war in the 1980s. But Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime was now replaced with Shiite Islamists who enjoyed close links with the regime in the Shiite Iran.

Iran is today the most powerful foreign actor in Iraq, with an extensive trade and intelligence network in the country (though strongly opposed by the Sunni minority).

The fall of Iraq to Iran was a geopolitical disaster for the US-backed Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf. A new cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to life, as the two powers began to vie for power and influence in the region, in process exacerbating further the Sunni-Shiite tension.

  • The Shiite Crescent in the Middle East

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Kurdish Ambitions

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga stand guard on the Iraqi-Turkish border, on November 7, 2007 at the Ibrahim al-Khalil crossing, about 300 miles northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

Iraqi Kurds were one of the principal winners of the war in Iraq. The de-facto autonomous status of the Kurdish entity in the north – protected by a UN-mandated no-fly zone since the 1991 Gulf War – was now officially recognized by Iraq's new constitution as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Rich in oil resources and policed by its own security forces, the Iraqi Kurdistan became the most prosperous and stable region in the country.

The KRG is the closest any of the Kurdish people – split mainly between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey – came to real statehood, emboldening Kurdish independence dreams elsewhere in the region. The civil war in Syria has provided Syria’s Kurdish minority with an opportunity to renegotiate its status, while forcing Turkey to consider dialogue with its own Kurdish separatists. The oil-rich Iraqi Kurds will no doubt play an important role in these developments.

  • Iraq: The Kurdish Question

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Limits of US Power in the Middle East

Many advocates of Iraq war saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein as only the first step in the process of building a new regional order that would replace Arab dictatorship with US-friendly democratic governments. However, to most observers the unintended boost to Iran and Al Qaeda clearly showed the limits of US ability to reshape the Middle Eastern political map through military intervention.

When the push for democratization came in the shape of the Arab Spring in 2011, it happened on the back of homegrown, popular uprisings. Washington could do little to protect its allies in Egypt and Tunisia, and the outcome of this process on US regional influence remains wildly uncertain.

The US will remain the most powerful foreign player in the Middle East for some time to come, despite its diminishing need for the region’s oil. But the fiasco of the state-building effort in Iraq gave way to a more cautious, "realist" foreign policy, manifested in the US reluctance to intervene in the civil war in Syria.

  • Barack Obama’s Top Five Challenges in the Middle East
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