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. rehabmax

    Bush and Cheney. The fool and the evil . They did more harm in the middle east than any other administration.

    January 12, 2014 at 12:36 am | Reply
  2. TheTruth

    Obama must also be responsible for the increasing prisoner population in Abu Ghraib.

    January 12, 2014 at 12:37 am | Reply
    • Smell the Roses

      Iraq is a mess because of islam. muslims follow a cult of death and murder.

      January 12, 2014 at 7:42 am | Reply
      • Ron Simpson

        Actually it is because of 100 years of western intervention. It is time for the west to allow the ME to find its own solutions, borders, political systems. We have to live with whatever the result. It may take another 100 years.

        January 12, 2014 at 9:41 pm |
  3. chrissy

    @ SgtK, gotta disagree with you and im certainly not a college kid and come from a large family of military veterans. 2 of them died in the pentagon on 9/11 even. GWB and Cheney and companys only reason for starting this war was for purely selfish reasons! And they got very rich by doing it! And i agree somewhat with @ Jack, its NOT the USs job to police the world! And 3 trillion bucks a year is another good reason to get the he!! outta Iraq. But of course then we will have Israel and the congressional brats pushing for us to go to war with Iran!

    January 12, 2014 at 12:39 am | Reply
  4. chrissy

    And as long as there are humans on this earth there will be terrorists! Humans are the most evel of all creatures because they kill their own!

    January 12, 2014 at 12:43 am | Reply
    • Erik

      Male cats kill the kittens of the female cats they breed with.

      January 12, 2014 at 3:53 am | Reply
      • verita

        If that was true, the cats would've disappeared a long time ago from the face of the Earth. Thankfully, they're here.

        January 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm |
  5. 2Na

    Two words why the place is a killing ground: Al Sadr.

    January 12, 2014 at 12:50 am | Reply
  6. Hossein Meisami-Fard

    This is lose-lose situation for USA right now! We should have never left Iraq in the first place and we must reaffirm our position in Afghanistan. The sooner the better that we must expand our forces in Afghanistan for the sake of our interest. Iraq will never be a peaceful country. Israel’s sovereignty is also being compromised!

    January 12, 2014 at 12:53 am | Reply
    • Ron Simpson

      No! We will not send any more Americans to die for the ME. Every life has been a waste. It is time for the ME to come up with its own solutions. If the people must fight it out, then that is what we must let them do. If it takes fighting until they can't stand it any more, the solution might be better than anything we could do. It is their land, culture, solution. Any western involvement is only a postponement of the inevitable. China has a better ME foreign policy than we have.

      January 12, 2014 at 9:46 pm | Reply
  7. Hector

    Is that the best you liberals can do? Honestly? Blame Bush!!!
    The economy. BLAME BUSH!
    Global warming. BLAME BUSH!
    Gas prices. BLAME BUSH!
    Obamacare. BLAME BUSH!
    I was late to formation. Even though thats what I get for staying up all night partying with college chicks, I'm gonna join the club and tell my squad leader it was BUSH'S FAULT!
    The Sunni and Shia have been hating, mistreating and killing each other for years!
    Yeah so we didn't help out very much when it comes to these people holding hands and singing Kumbaya but only a miracle is gonna have that happen.
    Intervening make us look like imperialistic bullies but I'd rather look like an imperialist than a total wuss who is simply looking the other way for the most part.
    While saying "Hey you wanna mess with me? Here eat this! Yeah that was an AMERICAN made missile! That didn't satisfy you? Here! Yeah that was an AMERICAN made boot that just got rammed up your ***!" doesn't solve very much, neither does apologizing and looking the other way.
    Maybe I should start blaming liberals.
    Its nine months from now and I have to pay child support to 15 random chicks from 15 random colleges....CURSE YOU DEMOCRATS!!!!

    January 12, 2014 at 1:00 am | Reply
    • ranting moron

      You just made yourself sound like a uneducated ranting moron. If you're gonna argue make sense

      January 12, 2014 at 2:10 am | Reply
      • The Ranting Moron

        I was basically saying that liberals love to blame Bush on everything including Obamacare to a degree. Nothing is Obama's fault and Bush is Satan

        January 14, 2014 at 10:01 pm |
  8. Josh

    Because, as we all know, it was an absolute paradise before the war...

    January 12, 2014 at 1:52 am | Reply
    • Maha Baharat

      It was not an absolute paradise but women could go for shopping alone after the sun set. Now even men can not go for shopping after the sun set. Before invasion 1US = 1 Iraqi Dinar now 1 US = 1,200 Iraqi Dinar = economy was pretty close to paradise despite sanctions as compared to now.

      Most important of all, Iraq was a suni sword hanging over Iran's head. Now 60% of it is a part of the greater Iranian Empire. How secure does that make Israel and the rest of the word? Currently Iraqi government with the help of Iran is trying to take control of Anbar province which will link Iran with Syria through its puppets in Iraq. Those pro-Israel congressmen who want to make Israel more secure must be sleeping much better now than they were before US lost over 4,000 of its best men in Iraq and another over 40,000 wounded and many times more suffering from post deployment diseases/problems. And you know why they will be sleeping better, because their pockets are much heavier now and the fact is they do not give a dam to Israel, America or world's security/peace.

      January 12, 2014 at 8:23 am | Reply
      • minnie mouse

        So maybe Iraq residents would be happier going back to life under a dictatorship. I'm sure there are many candidates willing to serve that function. Americans would have trouble comprehending a choice like that, but Iraq residents have the right to choose it.

        January 12, 2014 at 7:28 pm |
  9. cturriag

    Actually the burden of Iraq's immoral war and its consequences goes beyond Bush to the Americans who elected (?) him It is amazing that such a happy-to-be-ignorant person can be elected by his people to the world's post most loaded with responsibility. Iraq's invasion is referred to in American press as 'unnecessary', euphemistic way to describe an immoral act with terrible consequences for the entire world.

    January 12, 2014 at 2:06 am | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      So the world is just astounded at "immoral acts with bad consequences"?

      January 12, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  10. james ruston

    Whether or you blame Bush for starting the war or Obama for not ending it, you, your children, and your grandchildren will be paying for it for a long time.

    January 12, 2014 at 2:17 am | Reply
  11. U.S does everyone's dirty jobs

    Zakaria wants to blame U.S. for the sectarianism wars of the middle east? Really? They have been fighting for centuries over who is the true representation of Islam. Zakaria seems to forget the U.S. was attacked by terrorist supporting governments like Iraq and it was necessary to get rid of those murderers. Mr. Zakaria don't let your Arabic roots cloud your judgment. Muslims with the ideology that they have to convert the world or kill all who don't want to convert started this war.

    January 12, 2014 at 2:22 am | Reply
    • Reality

      Do you know why those terrorist attacked us? Do you have any idea? It is really simple. It is not because they hate Christianity, or Jews, or because they are inherently evil. They attacked us for revenge. Revenge for what we do in the Middle East. Bin Laden's exact words after 9/11 were "Any state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security." Basically what he is saying is that if the United States wants to stop terrorism they should stop involving themselves in the Middle East. When we invade Iraq or Afghanistan all we are doing is breeding terrorists.

      January 12, 2014 at 2:40 am | Reply
      • myelinate

        Read Bin Laden's Letter to America..."The first thing I am inviting you to is Islam"...As long as they follow Islam and their Prophet they will never stop fighting and killing. It is an open ended command in the Qur'an. Islamic Jihad attacks are happening around the world in every country, on a daily basis. Although the Muslim populations are small, in the Philippines and Thailand beheadings, church burnings and demand for Sharia are commonplace.

        January 12, 2014 at 3:49 am |
  12. Reality

    Fareed Zakaria is 100% correct. Anybody who claims our invasion of Iraq was better for that country or ours is either joking or entirely misinformed. In regards to Bush, I think he gets blamed for a lot of things that were not his fault; however, there is no denying that this mistake was wholly his doing. By the way, everybody should read the book America's Deadliest Export: Democracy by William Blum.

    January 12, 2014 at 2:23 am | Reply
  13. Cheetahe

    Zakaria before the Iraqi war in his article for the Time magazine; at that time was all for a US intervention in Iraq, arguing that a democratic Iraq was going to be a model for the rest of the Muslim Middle East. Now here he is arguing what a mistake Bush did getting us in that hell hole. I agree that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake but Zakaria's article here is typical of the arguments of the foreign policy elites of America, who have no idea what they are doing with our troop's lives and our tax dollars.

    January 12, 2014 at 2:41 am | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      That is called the "Versatile Position Syndrome" – it changes colors as the winds-of-results shift.

      January 13, 2014 at 3:08 am | Reply
  14. Darsh

    I heard Former president George Bush is moving there.

    January 12, 2014 at 2:50 am | Reply
  15. Matt

    It is akin to the situation in Asia during the 50's dropping a second nuclear bomb in the same region on Asians. While it is a little different the chaos is and destruction is the same to a degree. We have overthrown the Sunni's and replaced them with Shia. A power sharing democracy was the vision but it did not turn out that way. So now you have Shia and remember the security forces are mainly Shia repressing the Sunni's. Now it may be fine for Iran to get involved as they have in Syria. But after overthrowing one Sunni country, the last thing the US needs to do is get involved in the repression of Sunnis in Iraq or Syria along side Iran. So not only did we overthrow a Sunni country they get involved in genocide along side the Shia. That would be akin to dropping a second atom bomb in the same region within a decade. And it is that which fuel extremism against us and lead to attacks on the homeland. If Russia want to choose one sect of religion over another and be involved in genocide, whatever the reap is on them. Because that is the sort of stuff that leads to radicalization and allows preachers of hate to use justification to direct Jihadists to attack. Similar to al-Qaida in the 90's due to US foreign policy support for dictators etc. While may not seem important now and Putin took a lot of the credit, the fact is it was US military pressure that forces the cessation of WMD attacks and the removal of such weapons. This may be the one thing that prevents us from reliving the terror of the 90's and early 2000. So if we stay clear of getting too close to the Iranians and the genocide against the Sunni and includes support for al-Maliki and his crackdown. We may all walk away without a scratch. Alternately if we go the other way and get too close to Iran on Syria and the Iraqi crackdown we will make ourselves a target. Much is said of radicalization from being in country, but due to the globalization of the internet anyone can become radicalised by what they see without being in country or actually fighting. Overthrowing one Sunni country and replacing it with a Shia dominated one and then being involved by aligning one selves with the Shia as they commit genocide all twice in a decade, will not make us any safer

    January 12, 2014 at 2:52 am | Reply
  16. JesterJames

    You welcome middle east...

    January 12, 2014 at 3:04 am | Reply
  17. k_Daraa

    Fareed, I distinctly remember one of your opinion pieces prior to March 2003, where you advocated an American invasion of Iraq as a way of "leap-frogging" and "Isolating" regimes hostile to US interests in the Middle East.

    I don't disagree with you about key Bush administration officials being "dumber-than-rocks" on the atmospherics regarding an invasion of Iraq; however, Saddam definately didn't make it easy for that administration to decide on an American foreign policy in the Middle East. You are laying the entire responsibility for the sectarian turmoil now in Syria and Iraq on the Bush administration, while completely ignoring all other influences. That is a cheap copout, nearly as base as Bush not knowing the difference between the two major divisions of the religion in Iraq.

    January 12, 2014 at 3:13 am | Reply
  18. windsor

    Author is correct stating that current violence is because the America-led coalition disturbed the balance of power in Iraq; Sadaam and the Bath party kept the "peace" with an iron fist and chemical weapons when necessary. Ok, so now what do you do? Since there are no real ideas put forward, this article belongs on the political trash heap. When one party is in power, man exploits man. When the other party is in power, just the opposite occurs.

    January 12, 2014 at 3:13 am | Reply
  19. Gregorio Racho

    What zechariah is arguing is not the invasion but the implementation of baathefication. Please check

    January 12, 2014 at 3:23 am | Reply
  20. frank shad

    The emmbasy making banks in buildings as paying for secerity to guard say the prudential center -if there was a middle tresury real office of cash stock pailed ina wall in a 20 th floor ina sky scrapper ina wall bank vault – ! and radom other ones too – an insergent list of affers in milltray of unwanted psies or servers could gambel on -guarding those vualts inspections and travling to others inshifts –then if there was a roatationof an insergent need to down a builing the cheif of police detail hiering could rotate a squead of drafted police from city to city as drafted for emrgacy trusery hidding of funds – then make abuildingfalldown on arouge ajent if it had to for milita truck counting –why iraqe staory -subject earlier was twin tower was was abank robbery hired by performace of milita dump truck countingas snow plows andgarbede colecters and city stuff veres costumes anddmv plates – so there could be atrilon doaller in tower dumptruck rt -as stradey of hireingmilitia foretn to make a dump truck militia > stillactive and on feet veres city halldmv plates for foreg worthlessness – so its a catch 22 whena usa general say rige every other builiding with 2 milion or 40 milinonin a dummpy builiding or 1 million in the prudential or 30 bliion in somwhere els as alottery resver of what is working militai and bad cops and thenits a internallafiers job as dmv workers could be siiting on a 30 milion wallsafe and not know it then bomb they feel downand andmilitea gets dump truck money !

    January 12, 2014 at 3:30 am | Reply
  21. Gregorio Racho

    I mean not invasion but deBaathefication implemented by bush which cause sectarianism is what zekaria explained as the cause of violence in Iraq which spread thru out middle east.

    January 12, 2014 at 3:33 am | Reply
  22. myelinate

    Why all the violence? JIHAD...same as in Syria

    January 12, 2014 at 3:41 am | Reply
  23. frank shad

    So one builing insues a cash safe for the other with certificates -rt -but the real cash burned up in the fire – then you have a insurance certificate for that cashand phonts of cashand reproted gurds that gaurded the cash – thananother state certiciate ins compnay then finds back up for another safe -thats what they do !! inscomapnies – soa rouge nh police dpt was gaurdinga safe inland somwhere and then poof more billclcinton laywers and then alpachino showed up yelling that nobody on my ship has to eat no go dame seat cuchions – ohh wow cant stop me now –

    January 12, 2014 at 3:45 am | Reply
  24. zed

    Fareed, I submit to you that war between Sunni ans Shia is exactly what the ruling Junta of America wanted all along.

    January 12, 2014 at 3:46 am | Reply
  25. frank shad

    And then bud jr the wolly haier and cloned nabil said where going to franks lebanaon to byand spit at his paistache tress and the obamas are hireing spiters to -ya ya y it all every bondy spit –

    January 12, 2014 at 3:47 am | Reply
  26. Its simple

    we may find this violent but this is normal to muslims.

    January 12, 2014 at 3:53 am | Reply
  27. John2983

    And 911 initiated by "radical" Muslims was what started the counter offensive by the USA....and Islam itself is what is causing the radicals to attack the USA and everyone who is does not measure up to their "islamic standards." it is Islam itself that is causing Muslims to kill each other.

    Summary: Islam itself is causing all this violence.

    January 12, 2014 at 6:03 am | Reply
  28. Zapp

    Muslims kill and oppress Muslims, Muslims blame non-Muslims..

    January 12, 2014 at 6:10 am | Reply
  29. JustAnotherVoter

    And CNN still can't figure out why their ratings are in the tank. So the Sunnis and Shiites began hating each other just 10 years sgo??

    January 12, 2014 at 7:10 am | Reply
  30. Chris Asking Question

    Again CNN, especially Mr. Fareed, wants to blame the actions of other individuals on someone else. The Middle East nations and the two dominant Islamic sects have been at war with each other for centuries. What is Mr. Fareed's agenda in this op-ed?

    January 12, 2014 at 7:49 am | Reply
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