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. JAL

    The events of 9-11 set the stage for Iraq. There is absolutely no reason to condone, allow or even discuss another one of these events, at this point in time. The solution here: Patience and room to grow.

    January 11, 2014 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • JAL

      Also, the US unemployment rate is at 6.7%. This is progress. It will continue to fall and new jobs will be created globally in 2014. Lets stop talking about war and discuss partnerships, progress and peace again.

      January 11, 2014 at 10:37 am | Reply
      • JAL

        US unemployment will be at 6.5% soon. This is a gate measure. New optimism will occur, when this happens and we are months away from it. Give the global economy time.

        January 11, 2014 at 10:40 am |
      • Jal

        On a different note, life was so much better, when cameras were expensive.

        January 11, 2014 at 5:58 pm |
      • Lanslot

        Check the news bud!?? The reason unemployment went down was that 375,000 people left the workforce in December and only 75,000 jobs were created and half of those were part time! Keep drinking the kool aid!!!! 92 million people are not working and the Labor Force Particepation rate is at 1978 levels!! I don't see much to be happy about!

        January 11, 2014 at 7:09 pm |
      • Johann (Administrator)

        The unemployment will probably fall to 6% and please people like you who have no clue how this figure is derived. To gullibles like you, the US must be doing so darn well.The truth is, people who have given up hope looking for a job, and there are 92 million today, are not included in the base for calculating the unemployment data. Yeah, go celebrate.

        January 11, 2014 at 7:21 pm |
      • jrobinson

        It utterly amazes me how clueless the low-information ObamaVoter is about the unemployment figure. The figure you are hearing is the U1 – which only works off welfare numbers and a few other numbers. It is also the rosiest and – right now – completely being massaged and manipulated. The real number you want is the U6 – this counts EVERYONE, even people who have given up looking for a job. This currently stands at 13% – almost DOUBLE the U1. If we calculated unemployment like we did in the 1920s, it would be over 20%. Every day of the Obama administration has had greater unemployment than at any year of the Great Depression. There are currently 92 MILLION people out of work; the largest amount in American History.

        We don't have soup lines – we have food trucks and EBT cards. We aren't always standing in line for scarce jobs...we apply online. It may not look like a depression, but it is one. And just like FDR, Obama is trying to keynesian his way out of reality, and his policies are extending what should have been a short recession into a major depression. And just like FDR, his only excuse is to continually blame his predecessor. Progressives just don't get it – there is no free lunch. And you can't make it all better by charging your luxuries onto your grandkids' credit cards.

        But pretending it's all going well is simply delusional.

        January 11, 2014 at 9:04 pm |
      • Lanslot

        And lets not forget the 89 Billion of printed money the Fed has been pumping each month into the stock market the last 5 yrs! Over 4 Trillion that is not even being added to the debt! This whole Obama "House of Cards" when it crashes will be devastating!! Especially to the Obama Free Money Drones!!! They are SCREWED! when it all collapses! It is criminal what this government is doing and I blame republicans also in this..

        January 11, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
      • JAL

        I am just saying that micro-management can have adverse effects on initial growth. Due to misinterpretation and over-reaction.

        January 13, 2014 at 6:40 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      It is still not too late to correct the mistake in Iraq. As it seems obvious that national reconciliation no longer realistic, break the country up: Balkanisation of Iraq. The modern Iraq is a an artificial state, as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which ignored the ethnic, sectarian divide. It turns out to be a huge mistake in the Middle East history.

      January 12, 2014 at 9:02 am | Reply
      • PD

        I always assumed that this would eventually happen. Three countries. I'm actually surprised it hasn't happened formally as yet. The borders would not be really set and agreed upon for possibly forever and thus initial civil war would set borders that would be fought over for the next few hundred years. Problem is that the three areas are not equally rich in resources. The Sunnis would be the most impoverished and that would not please the rest of the Sunni world. Thus they have a vested interest in trying to keep it together or to take over oil-rich portions and hold them. This would ensure warfare for a long while. Also Iran, Turkey (and Iraq) do not want a Kurdish state, lest their own Kurds and the international community try to carve out pieces of their countries. It would also give a legitimate state who could support rebels in those countries.

        January 12, 2014 at 12:06 pm |
  2. John H Morton

    Some truth here. But an unusually biased and weak performancem for someone of Zakaria's stature. Yes Bush made the decision to go to war and the CIA and Pentagon did a horrible job in execution. But by the end of Bush's time the country was reasonably stable and the Sunni had stood up for keeping Iraq whole and al Qaeda at bay. Obama for all his speeches has been remarkably out of touch with muslim countries. His decisions destabilized Iraq. He floundered completely in the Arab spring and chose to break Libya. Syria imploded. This is Obama's not Bush's. Disappointing to see Fareed stopp to such abject partisanship

    January 11, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Wrong, John. Iraq has been seething with unrest long before Obama's time and that has been going on since it's creation by both the French and the British in 1919. It appears that nobody here understands the ardent hatred between the Shiites and the Sunnis which has been going on for hundreds of years. Then again, the Kurds really do want their own home state, a fact which everyone here just seems to ignore. This kind of ignorance is truly disgusting!

      January 11, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Reply
      • jrobinson

        Sorry, that's just not true. Iraq was doing quite well until Obama blew off the final status of forces negotiation and just pulled everyone out. All it would have taken would be to leave a small stability force and Iran wouldn't be as active as they are, and Al-Queda wouldn't even be trying to retake cities, never mind succeeding. Face it, Obama screwed this up. He's lost a war that was 99% won. It's as if the democrats aren't happy unless they see the US military hanging from the skids of a helicopter on the last flight out of the country; and this is exactly why no one trusts democrats with foreign policy. From the Russian Reset button, to the Benghazi affair, to Iraq – it's been one long hard fail.

        January 11, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
  3. Calie Stephens

    Fareed, like other MSM types is water boy to Obama and the Democrats. No credibility here.

    January 11, 2014 at 6:52 pm | Reply
    • Lanslot

      Still Blaming Bush!! It's quite pathetic!

      January 11, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Let's just put the blame where it belongs, Lanslot. All this started with the French and the British back in 1919. Unfortunately, no one here seems to get it!

        January 11, 2014 at 7:14 pm |
      • AK

        The British are the biggest criminals in history. Every problem today is because they left these countries without resolving the problems properly. Look at India and Pakistan. When the British left, they did not resolve the Kashmir border issue and we still have this problem. In my opinion what they have done is intentional I.e. To keep the world continuously in turmoil.

        January 11, 2014 at 9:27 pm |
  4. Matthew Kilburn

    It would not be wrong to say that the American invasion of Iraq has contributed to the occurrence of the upheaval in recent years. It would, however, be unfair to blame America for the upheaval itself. Why? Because you reap what you sow. And what the various groups in the Middle East – in Iraq, the Sunnis under Hussein – sowed was oppression and terror of their neighbors. What they reaped was the hatred and opposition of those groups. Unless you propose that we should have been content with perpetual thuggish dictatorship (an idea that would be completely incompatible with American principles and values), then at some point this was going to happen. Indeed, perhaps its better that it happened the way it did. Imagine how Iraq would have been had it entered into another conflict with Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Or if there had been a domestic uprising. Syria on a far greater scale.

    January 11, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Reply
    • Christopher Rose

      But, if you use this logic, blacks in this country should have a right to opress and destroy the people who opressed them for all those years. Two wrongs don't make a right. I still agree with Fareed. We should stay out of it and let them figure this out themselves. Eventually they will all tire of killing each other and come to some rational agreement. AS long as we keep jumping in and they have an outside party to blame insted they will never learn to solve their own problems.

      January 11, 2014 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  5. Martin

    I like how CNN stays partial unlike the other networks.......

    January 11, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  6. Martin

    I like how CNN stayts impartial unlike the other networks.......

    January 11, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  7. John Geheran

    With due respect Mr. Zakaria, your take on the turmoil in Iraq is fundamentally misplaced. The root cause for the conflicts throughout the Middle East has to do with the shared goals of the Al-Qaeda sorts, the Muslim Brotherhood, et al: world domination, rule under Shari'a law and the re-establishment of a global caliphate. If Israel ceased to exist and US interventions were a non-occurrence, the violent pursuit of power by the Islamists and the secularists would be the menu du jour. Nothing else matters.

    January 11, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Reply
    • deer

      Totally agree. During the 2004 elections wasn't sure for whom to vote as a Turkish-American. Then flew to Turkey to make up thy mind and sent the vote for George W.Bush from the American Embassy in Istanbul. Democracy can't come without an American 'intervention' somewhat, to say the least and yet valid as of today.

      January 11, 2014 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  8. OnTheRoad

    Iraq is having problems because Muslims can't even get along with themselves! When Baptist don't get along they just split the church and part move to a new building! Muslims on the other hand kill each other and say it's in the name of God! Some one needs to ask them "Hos is that working for you?"

    January 11, 2014 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  9. danny yoder

    those clone drones at the cartoon news network are persistent if nothing else when it comes to blaming president bush.whatever gps.

    January 11, 2014 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  10. Name*Walter

    Zarakia is also the person who did not think a nuclear armed Iran was a problem for the world.

    January 11, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  11. Tim

    Yep, ignore 1300 years of history because the Sunnis and Shias never fought each other until Bush came along.

    January 11, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  12. mdl

    Well at least Obama can say that he ended an unpopular illegal war, add that to his resume, then the democrat party can boast in the next election they were the ones that corrected the GW Bush mistake.

    January 11, 2014 at 10:16 pm | Reply
    • Sgt K

      Haha Obama tried to extend this illegal war but because Bush had an opt out in the SOF agreement he was able to say I did it, it was only unpopular with you 18 year old college students and rich liberals that refused to let your kids fight in war cause you felt guilty! Coward!

      January 11, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  13. Marc

    The sectarian violence in the middle east is the continuation of tribal violence that has been constant for centuries before Islam was a religion. The people of the middle east are responsible for the continuation of this violence, and have the power to stop it. Putting this current meltdown on any American administration past or present is an error that only creates noise that prevents us from hearing the real solution.

    January 11, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • American

      You deceive yourself. Bush collapsed the Iraqi state and that collapsed all semblance of security and order thereby igniting and inflaming the societal divisions. If you throw a fire-bomb into a theater and burn it down killing all inside, you don't blame the theater for being made of flammable materials – you blame the psychopath who threw the fire-bomb.
      So what if the Sunnis, Shia and Kurds have centuries-old grudges and hatreds? That's the world as it is. It's that way in many, many places. That's why Presidents should work for peace, through peaceful means. That's why Presidents shouldn't start wars. Wars are exceedingly difficult to control to obtain desirable outcomes.

      January 16, 2014 at 10:32 am | Reply
  14. JC

    Yes Fareed, the middle east would be a peaceful, loving, stable place if only Bush had left that nice, benevolent leader Saddam Hussein and his upstanding sons in power. ARE YOU REALLY THAT STUPID??

    January 11, 2014 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  15. Max

    How long do you wanna blame bush for Obama's constant failure from domestic to foreign issues, there is doubt bush made mistake but Obama is a total failure basically his strategy is " don't do anything so you don't make mistake"" ,, united state has never been so weaker and more humiliated than today under Obama leadership , look from Egypt to Afghanistan nobody gives a damn to what the US is asking,,, Obama is loosing all of the USA allies in the Middle East to Russia , the mess he is making today will take decades to clean up,

    January 11, 2014 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  16. chrissy

    @ Lanclot good thing you place blame on Repukes too since this crap has been going on a heckuva lot longer than the few years Obama has been in office!

    January 11, 2014 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  17. Matthew Kilburn

    "It appears that nobody here understands the ardent hatred between the Shiites and the Sunnis which has been going on for hundreds of years."

    Color me unimpressed. There was hundreds of years of animosity between French and Germans, between British and French, between French and Spanish. Between Protestant and Catholic. And yet you don't see America breaking down into mass unrest along those lines.

    January 11, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  18. chrissy

    Oops sorry shoulda been @ Lanslot! My sincere apology.

    January 11, 2014 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  19. ricardo1968

    This story confuses the chicken with the egg. Just because Saddam lorded over the Shiites with extreme brutality does not mean there was no problem with sectarianism. Obviously when central governments become weak, these problems will be exacerbated, but the root of all of these problems is dictatorship, not the lack of it!

    January 11, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Reply
  20. Sgt K

    Holy shi$ liberal media still trying to blame Bush lol your pathetic....let me argue to how its Clinton's falt lol

    January 11, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Reply
  21. Charley

    Fareed says "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." Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been warring since before the US ever existed. Blame Bush? How lame.

    January 11, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  22. FubarObama

    Can't believe this guy gets paid to write this drivel

    January 11, 2014 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  23. PD

    Not being any type of leftist supporter, and a Canadian to boot, I have to side with Zak on this one. The problems seen in Iraq, as well as Libya, Egypt, Tunisia were about as predictable as the sun rising in the east. In fact I predicted it all myself. No one needs a PhD in Mideast studies from a bunch of Palestinian supporting profs to understand the realities of the Mideast. It was always going to go this way in Iraq, and there is no way the USA was going to stay in Iraq ad infinitum through several presidencies. So Obama leaving or the next Nixon, wasn't going to change Iraq. The only reason why Iraq was stable was due to brutal repression by Saddam. Once that was gone the others were always going to have their revenge. Same in Syria, Libya, etc. It's the way it works. After 9/11 destroying Osama and the Taliban enablers was right. Iraq was a waste of time and has unsettled the region more than it ever was. And then it has been augmented by Obama with regard to the overall Arab Spring, Egypt, Libya, Syria. Handled poorly by a pres who knows nothing.

    January 11, 2014 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  24. Jeff

    Why is anything that happens in the world the USAs fault? Why won't the people of the world take responsabily for there own actions? It's always someone else's fault. That fact is we need to quite being the world nanny. They need to work it out for themselves. If people die in the process so be it. That's the way it has always been and will always be. This conflict has been along time coming and need to play out.

    January 11, 2014 at 11:53 pm | Reply
    • Jack

      Jeff, who do you think supplies weapons to these terrorist organizations (USA), world nanny, the american people do not want that, the crooked politicians are the ones and the crooked media who polutes the American minds. Of course people want Muslims to die, If it was up to a lot of Americans and Israeli's they would set up concentration camps like Hitler and gas and kill thousands of Muslims, that probably would be tough to hide in this day and age so easier to just arm terrorist organizations and have them do it. ( look up orgin of Al Queda, AIPAC, Mossad, the truth is out there )

      January 12, 2014 at 12:04 am | Reply
  25. Lorand

    "One person is killed roughly every 21 minutes in Venezuela. And there were 24,700 violent deaths last year in the oil-rich country of roughly 30 million people, according to the nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory." (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/07/world/americas/monica-spear-venezuela-beauty-queen-killed/?c=&page=2)
    This would make Iraq at least the 3rd most violent country in the world

    January 12, 2014 at 12:10 am | Reply
    • Notanist

      Yep. 21-24,000+ murders in Venezuela in 2013, but then nobody in our media really cares about Latin America, despite far more of their audience having close ties to various countries there.

      January 12, 2014 at 12:49 am | Reply
  26. derek

    Yes whenever Jew operated CNN doesn't like the consequences it refers to the sunnis as "al qaida"

    nobody calls themself al qaida its a jew made up term, those sunnis are oppressed and killed and they are standing up to the Western backed shiite govt.

    The " al qaida" is a deceitful term and an excuse to label anyone who stands up to this despotic regime in Baghdad.

    9/11 is a jew job, larry silverstein the jew didn't say "pull it" on wtc7 for no reason.


    January 12, 2014 at 12:17 am | Reply
  27. rehabmax

    The whole Bush – Cheney era always gets my blood boiling. Bush the fool and Cheney the epitome of evil. By destabilizing the region they touched off the religious wars we are now seeing absolutely. Sprinkle the seeds of democracy in the Middle East and all will be fine. How dumb. Bush now paints Scotty dogs and Cheney counts how many beats his new heart has left. Hell is waiting for them both one day. History will judge that administration as a total failure from start to finish. 8 very dark years

    January 12, 2014 at 12:33 am | Reply
  28. rj

    Iraq was such a gross example of govt incompetence. Bush thought we would march in and bring walmart for cheap gas.... and a bit of good ol bible mongering. Idiots like bush and palin should stick with fox news and revival telethons.

    January 12, 2014 at 12:34 am | Reply
  29. In the name of our Safety

    No one said it was going to be easy to get rid of terrorism. The U.S.A did a dirty job no other country wanted to do. Don't blame sectarianism on the U.S.A that has existed in the middle east for centuries. Did the writer of this article forget Sept. 11 ? Or is he to caught up in defending his Arabic roots?

    January 12, 2014 at 12:34 am | Reply
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