January 11th, 2014
08:00 AM ET

Why Iraq is in turmoil

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

Here's a startling statistic: more than 8,000 Iraqis were killed in violent attacks in 2013. That makes it the second most violent country in the world, after its neighbor Syria.

As violence has spread and militants have gained ground in several Middle Eastern countries, people have been wondering how much this has to do with the Obama administration and its lack of an active intervention in the region. The Wall Street Journal and a Commentary magazine opinion piece have both argued this past week that the Obama administration's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq is directly responsible for the renewed violence in that country. They and others have also argued that because it has stayed out of Syria, things there have spiraled downward.

Let me suggest that the single greatest burden for the violence and tensions across the Arab world lies with a president – though not President Obama – and it lies with an American foreign policy that was not too passive but rather too active and interventionist in the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq triggered what has become a regional religious war in the Middle East. Let me explain how, specifically.

From March through June of 2003, in the first months of the occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration made a series of catastrophic decisions. It authorized the disbanding of the Iraqi army and signed onto a policy of deBaathification, which meant that anyone in Iraq who had been a member of the top four levels of the Baath Party – the ruling party under Saddam Hussein – would be barred from holding any government job.

This meant that tens of thousands of bureaucrats and hundreds of thousands of soldiers – almost all Sunnis – were thrown out of work, angry, disposed, and armed. This in turn meant the collapse of the Iraqi state and of political order. But it also sparked the rise of a sectarian struggle that persists to this day.

More from CNN: Can Iraq ever escape cycle of violence?

The Bush administration went to war in Iraq to spread democracy. But in fact it spread sectarianism – displacing the Sunni elite who had long ruled the country and replacing it with hardline Shia religious parties that used their new found power to repress the Sunnis – just as they had been repressed.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been utterly unwilling to share power with the Sunnis – who comprise about 20 percent of Iraq – and that has driven them into opposition, extremism, and terrorism. During the surge the prime minister made several promises to change his ways and over the last few years has reneged on every one of them.

This sectarian power-struggle is the origins of the civil war that has been ongoing in Iraq for 11 years. It is the cancer that has spread beyond Iraq into other countries, from Syria to Lebanon.

The Bush administration seemed to have made the massive strategic error almost unthinkingly. There is for example a report that a few months before the invasion, President Bush met with three Iraqi exiles and appeared unaware that Iraq contained within it Sunnis and Shias. An Arab leader confirmed to me that in his meetings with the president, it was clear that Bush did not understand that there was a difference between the two sects. Others in the administration, better informed, were convinced that the Shia would be pluralists and democrats. Those of us who warned of these dangers at the time were dismissed as pessimists.

So if we're trying to understand why we see a Sunni-Shia battle unfolding across the Middle East, keep in mind that the primary cause is not that the Obama administration didn't intervene in Syria. It's because the Bush administration did in Iraq.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • Iraq • Middle East • Religion

soundoff (454 Responses)
  1. Islam4Foools

    Blaame goes to islamic ideology and nothing else, leave islam, stay human and stay happy

    January 16, 2014 at 8:36 am | Reply
  2. American

    What Zakaria says here is true.
    When the Bush Admin. disbanded the Iraqi army and deBaathified the government, the state collapsed and all hell broke loose.
    The neocons were intoxicated with a very mistaken notion that it was their divinely appointed moment in history to re-make Iraq. They even designed a new Iraqi flag, which of course was rejected by, of all people, the Iraqis (oh yeah, forgot about them). Saddam was thoroughly de-fanged and posed no threat to the US or regional stability but he WAS in power in Iraq and (even with his terror) maintained a level of order and security which the nation has never seen since. The only victory of Bush's Iraq War was for Iran. Bush changed Iraq from a counter-balance to Iran into a Shiite Iran puppet state, thereby pushing the Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of Al Qaeda and sparking an insurgency which is now merging with the Syria war.
    I'm a life-long conservative Republican and have never voted Democrat but that doesn't mean I don't have eyes and a brain. Bush's Iraq war was and is a catastrophe.

    January 16, 2014 at 10:16 am | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      And a case could be made that following Bush's actions, the Iraqis had an opportunity to rebuild a new Iraq with its new flag and free from a Dictator. Instead, they chose inter-faction fighting and more death. They are responsible for making that decision. Once they figure this out and own it (instead of blaming someone else), maybe they can reclaim this lost opportunity for a new dictator-free Iraq. That would be wonderful. All new young nations make some decisions that do not serve them well. Decisions can be reversed.

      January 16, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Reply
    • wakeupAmerica

      the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth................ thank you American............ GWB was rather deficient in the intellect area, sadly to say........ and his 8 years as President, did more damage to the USA, than any President in the last 200 years............. he should have stuck to painting as his career..........

      January 16, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Reply
    • WAB

      May ,we never let this happen again !

      January 18, 2014 at 7:56 am | Reply
  3. chrissy

    Thank you @ American! I used to be republican as well before GWB! But thanks to that terd in a punch bowl my eyes have been opened! The WORST POTUS in our history!

    January 16, 2014 at 11:35 am | Reply
  4. minnie mouse

    turd in a punchbowl ROFL

    January 16, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  5. Eric

    How about the current administration not getting a forces agreement with Iraqi govt?? Amazing how a guy who "works" for the administration gets put out there as a non partisan strategic thinker. Our current is indecisive at best and his policies have set back the US in mid east for maybe a generation. Nobody takes the US seriously now. Bush made mistakes but he made decisions and people knew that, our current dithering has made us weak.

    January 16, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Reply
    • Deji

      Why do we always have to have a "force agreement" everywhere in the world? Vietnam, Germany, South Korea, France etc, and this are all "FRIENDS", I always wonder why none of our "FRIENDS" have no military bases in our own country. I thought "FRIENDS" were suposed to reciprocate good gestures such as having bases in each other's backyard. Hey, but what do I know.

      January 16, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Hmm, I would have expected Fareed to be more knowledgeable than to say America triggered a regional religious war in the Middle East. Look at history, the religious war of Islam killing just about everything including its own adherents began around 600 AD when Mohammad spoke to Satan and hasn't stopped since. What about Osama attacking America because a demon told him to? What about Islam trying to destroy Israel since the day it was founded? What about islam devouring souls and breaking bodies from the very First Fitna unto today?

    But that's okay, stay blind to islam and watch it spread like fire killing and enslaving everything in its path. Sigh, no wonder you all are losing the war. You can't even see why the enemy fights you; how can you hope to fight back?

    January 16, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  7. James

    So long story short, we never should have invaded Iraq. Got it. I fully agree.

    January 16, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • wakeupAmerica

      It is much more serious than that, unfortunately, James. War, for America, has now become a means whereby less than 100 CEO's get to be multi-billionaires, while 2-3 trillion dollars gets dumped onto the backs of the American people, as debt. Fighting wars "on tab" is what brought the Roman Empire to its knees.

      January 17, 2014 at 12:59 am | Reply
      • WAB

        And we may be next ,what a insane war !

        January 18, 2014 at 7:53 am |
    • minnie mouse

      History will be the final judge. It is way too soon to know how the maximally serious chess game over there is going to settle out. My hopes rest with the educated intellectuals in these regions eventually emerging victorious. It will take years.

      January 16, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  8. John Rosen

    Fareed is a phony. He might make it as a fiction writer, but certainly not a analyst.

    January 17, 2014 at 1:57 am | Reply
  9. John Rosen

    Fareed is a phony.

    January 17, 2014 at 2:00 am | Reply
  10. dirksterdude

    The violence in the Middle East has been coming for a long time. These people need an outlet because they feel they are marginalized and have nothing to look forward to for themselves or there families. You know what – they are right. That is the reason Bin Laden could be so effective. From there perspective he gave them hope. From a Western perspective it was just another way to control people without hope for his team instead of the home team of whatever country they are from. Nothing like a cause to effect a change.

    January 17, 2014 at 11:23 am | Reply
  11. Joe

    We got rid of Saddam. Their future is in their hands now if they want to screw it up they will. If that want to kill each other arguing about the real meaning of some ancient message from some goat humper. well then more power to em.

    January 17, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  12. Dr. Raid Amin

    45% of the families living in Baghdad before Desert Storm had inter-marriages between Shia and Sunni families.
    The ratio of inter-marriages between Muslim and Christian families was much lower.
    95% of the Iraqi Kurdish people follow the Sunni Muslim faith. You never hear about this fact on US media.
    Did you know this fact?

    The Kurds are simply not counted when the incorrect percentages of Sunni and Shia are mentioned in the media.

    January 18, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Reply
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