The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has undermined Washington’s influence in the Middle East by inadvertently strengthening the role of other regional and outside actors, such as Iran and China, in the aftermath of the conflict, experts told Sputnik.
On March 19, 2003, then-President George W. Bush in a televised address from the Oval Office said the US and coalition forces were in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq and “free its people,” marking the start of an invasion and occupation that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and combatants.
The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government and the subsequent adoption of a new constitution did not, however, lead to immediate peace, as it upended the relations between the previously dominant Sunni Arab minority and the Shia majority as well as the Kurdish minority concentrated in the northern part of the country. This led to prolonged sectarian violence, involving both Shia and Sunny militias, most notably the Islamic State (IS, banned in Russia) among the latter. While the IS was ultimately defeated in Iraq, this led to the further strengthening of Shia armed groups, often said to be backed by Iran.
“The invasion was catastrophic not only for the Iraqi people but for the entire region, not only in terms of hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties but also a US-imposed constitution that reinforces Shia-Sunni divisions, the continuing influence of Iranian-led militias, and sectarian conflict, exacerbated by shock therapeutic, neoliberal economic policies imposed by the occupation authority,” Alan Cafruny, a professor of international affairs with the Department of Government at Hamilton College, said.
The expert went on to suggest that the destruction of the Iraqi state and armed forces during the US invasion ushered in “chronic political instability,” and facilitated the rise of the IS, “while ironically greatly enhancing Iran’s influence at the expense of the United States.”
Nevertheless, the US still holds significant influence within Iraq, including through 18 US military bases, although it now has to contend with Iran and its militias as well as China, which is a major importer of Iraqi oil, according to Cafruny. He also highlighted the latter’s role in orchestrating the Saudi-Iran rapprochement as evidence of the changing Middle Eastern politics.
“At the present time, the United States will continue to provide support for Israel, and the possibility of strikes on Iran cannot be ruled out. However, the United States has to some extent lost interest in the Middle East as it has achieved oil independence and turned its attention to Russia and China,” Cafruny said.
Meanwhile, Roderick Kiewiet, a professor of political science at the California Institute of Technology, thinks that eliminating Iraq as a major military power has served the long-run interest of the United States in the sense that Washington can concentrate on counteracting Tehran without empowering Baghdad.
“As for future US military action — I sincerely hope not, and can’t imagine now why we would yet again get deeply involved militarily in that part of the world. What I think would lead to this is if Israel were seriously threatened. Right now the Israelis are quite capable of taking care of themselves, but who knows how long that will continue to be the case,” Kiewiet continued.
On the other hand, M. V. Ramana, the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and the director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, thinks that despite the invasion having a brutal effect on the Iraqi population and destabilizing the larger Middle East region, Washington is unlikely to avoid further use of armed force in the region.
“Unfortunately, despite this sorry history, I don’t think the United States is likely to give up the idea of military action in the Middle East,” Ramana stated.
The US launched its invasion based on the alleged evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, presented by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN Security Council in 2003. However, a CIA report submitted to Congress a year later concluded that there were no WMDs in the country at the time of the invasion. Powell would later describe the speech as a “blot” on his record and great intelligence failure.