Just as I was leaving the United States last week after two months of traveling around the country and encountering the best of the people and culture, I read a newspaper story that reminded me of the dark and ugly side of the country. It was a New York Times report from Baghdad quoting senior U.S. and Iraqi officials who expressed, “growing concern that Al-Qaeda’s offshoot here, which just a few years ago waged a debilitating insurgency that plunged the country into a civil war, is poised for a deadly resurgence. … U.S. and Iraqi analysts said Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was shifting its tactics and strategies – like attacking Iraqi security forces in small squads – to exploit gaps left by the departing U.S. troops and to try to reignite sectarian violence.”
What makes this so noteworthy is what was left unwritten in the news story, and is equally ignored in the mainstream of public discussion in the U.S. these days: Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia only came into its own and carried out its deadly attacks and its sectarian terrorism because the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 made it possible for it to do so.
There was no significant Al-Qaeda-style presence in Iraq before 2003. Its birth and expansion since then is just one of the many deadly consequences of the Anglo-American invasion that has shattered Iraq and send ripples of instability, suffering and violence across much of the Middle East.
Now that most foreign troops have long gone and the United States is leaving by the end of this year, Iraq is likely to be largely on its own as it faces the continuing threat of violence and Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions that are the operational and ideological hallmarks of Al-Qaeda. The United States and Iraq have not been able to agree on a status of forces agreement that would allow thousands of American troops to remain in the country in a training and advisory capacity, and so officials from both countries expect their successful intelligence-sharing work to diminish. At the same time, some Iraqis express concerns that Al-Qaeda might try to forge links with the remnants of the former Baathist regime, thus creating new challenges to the Iraqi government.
One of the main obstacles to a status of forces agreement is Washington’s insistence that any American troops that remain in the country should be immune from any legal prosecution for their actions in Iraq. The Iraqis, understandably, refuse to agree to this, as would any self-respecting government or people. So there is no agreement, the American troops are leaving, and Al-Qaeda may experience a resurgence.
These various dimensions of the American military move into Iraq, over eight years ago, and now out of the country have a consistency to them that is troubling. They reflect the sense among many in Washington that the United States can send its troops anywhere in the world, to carry out any mission, without being subjected to any accountability or legal constraints. The U.S. can invade any country at will, unleash massive dislocations, death and destruction, give birth (deliberately or unwittingly) to sectarian terror and ethnic cleansing, and then leave – without thinking twice about what it may be leaving behind.
The particular threat of Al-Qaeda in Iraq is not only that it carries out terror attacks against government and civilian targets, but also that it deliberately seeks to foment Sunni-Shiite tensions. Many tragic, wasteful and criminal consequences of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq have now been well documented by Western and Arab researchers alike (see http://costsofwar.org/). The most dangerous in the long run could be the emergence of a new strand of Shiite-Sunni tension and violence, including bombings of mosques, assassinations and ethnic cleansing of entire neighborhoods.
Such extreme sectarian polarization and warfare between Shiites and Sunnis is a new phenomenon in our region. Some Arab countries had certainly experienced Sunni-Shiite tensions in several arenas, including theological differences, social discrimination, economic exploitation, and political subjugation, but these never spilled over into overt warfare as they have done in Iraq since 2003.
The supreme irony of Americans expressing concern today about a revival of Al-Qaeda in Iraq is that the American invasion opened the door for the terror group to operate there in the first place. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the ugly stepchild of the American government and military.
Perhaps the most important thing about these developments is to ponder that they tell us about the importance of legal and political mechanisms that hold individuals and governments accountable for their actions. The U.S. rejects such accountability for itself, while demanding that others in the world be held accountable for their crimes. This adds intellectual racism to the other deeds and crimes that the U.S. should be held accountable for in Iraq and many other places around the world.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.