Most Americans seem to want to forget about Iraq. After spending 31Ž2 years there, I can understand why. But our veterans in Berkshire County and throughout the country have sacrificed too much for us to ignore the sneaking return to war in Iraq. The Iraq national election Wednesday provides opportunity. Washington must draw a line in the sand and push for a broadly representative government that forestalls further conflict.
When the war finally ends in Syria, the sectarian rivalry that frames the political landscape of the Middle East will only shift to Iraq. Inter-
national Sunni jihadists will find the Shia-led government in Baghdad a tempting next target. Syrian Sunnis will look the other way while their more radical countrymen support veteran fighters returning to Iraq. And Sunni Saudi Arabia and others, intent on "breaking the back" of Shia Iran, will send funds and arms anywhere necessary to finish the job.
Meanwhile, if the Iranian government loses its ally in Syria and its link to Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq will only increase in importance to them. Iran is likely to fend off threats to their position and to Shia in Iraq by supporting Shia militias and strong-arming Shia factions. Meanwhile, Shia will feel burned and under attack throughout the region, incr-
easing the temptations of radicalism.
These dynamics have already contributed to increased fighting in Iraq. In 2013, nearly 8,000 people were killed -- the most since the end of the civil war five years ago. Movement across borders to support local groups is already visible, signaling a familiar return to fighting that occurs in most nations emerging from civil war. Only this time it will be worse, for three central reasons.
First, 140,000 US troops used to impose restraint on regional and local actors. In 2006, Saudi Arabia threatened to officially supply Sunnis with money and arms while Iran reinforced Shia militia. The U.S. demanded space to reverse the civil war and our troops fought hard to achieve that through the surge. Without that moderating troop force on the ground, all sides in Iraq will cash in on regional support with little inhibition.
Second, Iraq simply cannot absorb new tensions. The policies of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and the sectarian structure of Iraq politics have escalated instability. The promises that helped turn many Sunnis away from Al Qaida several years ago have not been met. Instead, Sunni leaders were removed and the Iraqi military was used to implement the Prime Minister’s agenda. Iraqi communities thus remain distrustful.
Third, Al Qaida is on the rebound thanks to the Syria crisis. President Bashar Al-Assad’s brutality has been a bigger rallying cry for jihadists than the U.S. presence in Iraq. Individuals and social organizations throughout the region provide arms, financing, and volunteers. So while Al Qaida was diminished in Iraq not long ago, it is energized again.
The national election taking place in Iraq is an opportunity for Washington to take a stand. The U.S. should underscore the importance of a free and fair election and broadly representative government. Credible institutions are also crucial: the judiciary, prison system, and security forces are damaged by the perception that they enforce sectarian policies. Washington still has leverage in Baghdad due to ongoing arms sales, and it should be used.
Action can’t stop at Iraq’s borders though. The U.S. must also tell allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to stop using Iraq to transfer money and arms to Syria, and to refrain from using Iraq as an expendable battlefield in the fight against Iran.
For Iran, a regional sectarian war has never been in its interest -- especially not one centered on its border. Sunnis vastly outnumber Shia in the region, and the minority fears a resurgence of Al Qaida. To avoid another conflict distracting them from Syria, Tehran may wish to incentivize Prime Minister Maliki to make necessary political and economic concessions to Sunnis to stabilize Iraq.
After a decade fighting two wars, the attraction of an isolationist U.S. foreign policy is obvious. Moreover, the United States is confronted with an unraveling region as troop presence and influence diminish. But this only makes it more important to tackle future wars before they begin. Robust diplomatic action to reverse recent setbacks is not the same as re-engaging militarily.
In Iraq, we owe it to those who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure war does not return.
Adam Hinds recently returned from nearly a decade in the Middle East working for the United Nations in Iraq, Jerusalem and Syria. He is currently the program coordinator for Pittsfield Community Connection, a program addressing youth and gang violence. He is also a Truman Security Fellow.