Impacts of the Iraq War on the Middle East

The effects of the Iraq War on the Middle East have 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

Mourners carry the coffins of Iraqi Sunni men found dead on September 28, 2005 in Baghdad, Iraq. Bodies of seven Iraqi Sunni men were found on September 28, 2005 north of Baghdad, Iraq.
Akram Saleh /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

his handout image provided by the Iraqi Prime Minister office shows Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki holding photographs of a man identified by the Iraqi government as al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Ayyub al-Masri at a news conference on April 19, 2010 in Baghdad, Iraq
Iraqi Prime Minister office/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 the 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.

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Ascendancy of Iran

Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi attend a campaign rally at Imam Khomeini Mosque in the capital Tehran on May 16, 2017 in Tehran, Iran. Iran's presidential election on May 19 is effectively a choice between moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani and hardline jurist Raisi, with major implications for everything from civil rights to relations with Washington.
Majid Saeedi/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.

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Kurdish Ambitions

A peshmerga fighter plants a Kurdish flag atop a new earth berm position as Iraqi Kurdish forces push the frontline forward against ISIS forces in the Tal al-Ward district 20 miles southwest of Kirkuk, Iraq, on March 13, 2015.
Scott Peterson/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

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Limits of US Power in the Middle East

President Barack Obama leaves with Vice President Joe Biden after conducting a press conference in the East Room of the White House in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal, on July 14, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Pool/Pool/Getty Images

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.