Eight-year Iraq war leaving lasting impact on Mideast

March 18, 2011 

The March 19, 2003 launch of U.S. war against Iraq continues — only somewhat abated — into March 2011. It is now the longest war in U.S. history excepting Vietnam and Afghanistan.

This was a war sold to the American people as necessary to bring democracy to the Middle East, albeit out of the barrels of guns.

The consequences have been devastating: 4,600 soldiers killed, 60,000 wounded and an estimated 300,000 with some kind of emotional illness or disability. As many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed; unknown numbers of soldiers and thousands of others from other countries.

In a recent study, Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes notes that 500,000 claims for disability have been filed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; most of them of the Iraq war. Veterans Affairs medical facilities are treating 600,000. The cost of their care and benefits over the next 40 years is estimated to be between $589 billion and $934 billion, according to the study.

While the Obama administration and the Pentagon have stated that U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2011, most Middle East analysts think up to 20,000 combat troops and other security personnel will remain. The State Department and Bureau of Diplomatic Security intend to employ another 10,000 to 12,000 security contractors. This indicates the U.S. plans to have a substantial presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future, including air bases.

The Iraq war resulted in several fundamental changes in the U.S. geopolitical and geostrategic posture in the Middle East and North Africa.

The first change was the bifurcation of Iraq into Arab and Kurdish sectors. The corollary of this division was to compel Turkey to become a major geopolitical player, not just in Kurdistan-Iraq and Arab Iraq, but in Syria, Lebanon and Iran and to challenge more strongly U.S. policies in the region.

Ankara was compelled toward this policy in order to meet the growing nationalist challenges of Kurds within Turkey, especially the 8 million living in southeast Turkey along the Iraq and Syrian borders. The U.S. war against Iraq obliged Turkey to fundamentally seek to create a policy of "zero sum problems" with its Arab neighbors.

This policy was also intended to establish stronger economic and trade relations and to better manage the growing challenge of Kurdish nationalism among the three states and Iran. The strident Kurdish nationalism resulting from the U.S. war in Iraq and the challenges it presents to the Turkish state has embittered Turkish officials and diplomats.

Another major consequence of the Iraq war is that it has changed fundamentally the balance of political power between the Sunni and Shi'a Arabs with the Shi'a now the dominant group with 60 percent of the population, while Sunnis have only 20 percent (the other 20 percent being Kurdish).

The U.S. war contributed to making Iraq the first country in the Arab world, indeed the world, ever to be governed by a majoritarian Shi'a population — a development vehemently disliked by Sunnis, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both strong U.S. allies.

Being the only Arab Shi'a dominant country will, it seems for the foreseeable future, impel the Shi'a government in Baghdad to have close relations with Iran, a country which itself is 90 percent Shi'a, in order to protect itself from Sunni subversion and destabilizing tactics, especially from Saudi Arabia.

Of course, an Israeli or U.S. attack on the reigning government in Iran would change this policy.

The Iraq war has gone badly for the U.S. and its neoconservative supporters. Contrary to Washington's expectations, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran have grown in strength. In February 2011, Lebanon, a country with 38 percent of its population Shi'a, for the first time in its history nominated a Shi'i as prime minister, and he has vowed to have good relations with Iran.

It is possible that the above-mentioned two emerging geopolitical paradigms will be challenged by the political upheavals that have engulfed North Africa and the Middle East. Notably, the U.S. and its client regimes have been unable, up to this point, to manage to their satisfaction the political dynamics in Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza and — as we have seen the past month and a half — in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.

It is unclear whether the U.S. and its client regimes will be able to continue to suppress the desire for freedom and dignity among the Arab peoples with perfunctory reforms. It seems the U.S. will continue to rely on its and allies' massive military power to dominate the Middle Eastern and North African oil and gas pipeline networks and to secure Israel's annexation of Jerusalem and the water and land resources of the West Bank.

There is no indication that Washington will change these policies.

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst whose newest book is The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011.

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