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. I Can Read

    Fine – since this' blame the other guys posturing' will apparently never end......lets continue this line of thinking with the obvious conclusion. Obama is apparently incapable of resolving the Iraq issue (or Afghanistan or Syria) so he should also be considered a failure.

    Constantly relying on the blaming others is not solving the issue – correct??

    January 12, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Reply
  2. michael

    There was no other possible result. It was the most mindless, pointless, baseless naked aggression in the history of the world.

    January 12, 2014 at 6:35 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Hitler appreciates your analysis.

      January 12, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • Anton

      Nazi invasion of Poland, Belgian occupation of the Congo, Napoleon's march across Europe, the British in India

      I think your history might be lacking, all of the above would top your list more effectively. However the U.S. led invasion of Iraq was ultimately a mistake.

      January 12, 2014 at 10:45 pm | Reply
    • Quinton

      Well said, michael. Just ignore these ignoramuses here who are dumb enough to think that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a "good" idea!

      January 13, 2014 at 8:36 am | Reply
  3. martin jude

    Both parties were involved in the mistake that was the Iraq invasion. Since the elected reps get the good dollars to do their job, let us leave it upto them to find the real and lasting solution.

    January 12, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Reply
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      Was it a mistake, or PLANNED?
      Prior to our invasion, Iraq (Saddam specifically) owned the world's second largest petroleum reserve– a resource that was totally inaccessible for us, as under Saddam, it was a state-controlled asset.
      We had people on the ground in Baghdad the day we invaded, already negotiating for that oil, knowing that once Saddam was removed, we would be able to purchase all of that crude.
      Folks always think Iraq or Afghanistan were about terrorism or ideals. From a purely strategic standpoint– they were 100% about resources. We went to Iraq for oil, and we went to Afghanistan for the recently discovered lithium deposits there.

      January 12, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Reply
      • reb362

        So now Afghanistan is about lithium deposits??? Recently discovered??? We've been there for over 12 years now. Lithium was not a hot commodity back then. Bolivia has a plethora of it. By your thinking, why aren't we invading them? I'm sure we can come up with a "Cassus Belli", such as drugs cartels or something sinister as a reason to invade!
        10 years ago people like you thought we were in Afghanistan for the copper! Now this.
        I only wish Iraq was about the oil. Then we wouldn't be fracking the heck out of our own country and poisoning our drinkin water while we do it.

        January 13, 2014 at 1:15 am |
      • minnie mouse

        would have been cheaper to just buy the stuff on open market

        January 13, 2014 at 2:28 am |
  4. steve

    can we stop blaming bush, why can't you and the middle east people take responsibility for your actions. they(sunni, shiite, whoever) look like adults but act like children. the middle east needs to get out of the wild wild west age and enter 2014

    January 12, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • Anton

      So the middle eastern people are to blame for a foreign power destroying the closest thing they had to a working government? Is the average Iraqi also responsible for the power vacuum that followed? Are they responsible for the religious fanatics that capitalized on this?
      It seems the Iraqis bear a great deal of responsibility, while you bear absolutely none for your role in invading their country. How nice that must be for you.

      January 12, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Reply
      • minnie mouse

        They are responsible for the choices they make in response to the power vacuum. Create a difficult collaborative team government -or- withdraw into habitual factional power squabbles and resulting deaths. But every new nation has this.

        January 13, 2014 at 2:31 am |
    • Henri

      If you can't see that the Bush Administration bear the highest blame you are either short-sighted or lack a minimum knowledge of the facts. Middle-eastern are the cause of many of their problems but certainly not of the horrific consequences of the invasion and the related sectarian problems.

      January 13, 2014 at 1:09 am | Reply
      • minnie mouse

        "they" ARE the sectarian groupings. So how can they have no responsibility for selecting that choice?

        January 13, 2014 at 2:34 am |
  5. chrissy

    Lmao @ Sue Zy, i soooo enjoyed reading your comments. Keep em comming girl! Eventually you will wear down the moderators!

    January 12, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  6. minnie mouse

    Blamers Blame – Doers Do.

    January 12, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  7. chrissy

    Hmmm stop blaming Bush you say? Was someone else secretly POTUS at that time???

    January 12, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  8. chrissy

    And @ Martin, yes the "reps" do get good dollars to do their job. The problem is they don't feel they NEED to do anything to get those good dollars and as no one MAKES them do their job, leaving ANYTHING up to them is ridiculous!!

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

    And WHY is it the job of the US to resolve the issues in the ME anyway? Wth determined that? And why is it the US citizens job to PAY
    for these conflicts? Arent you people tired of your tax dollars being sent to pay for other countries militarys? When do we say enough is enough? We pay for Israels military and they are the biggest warmongers of all. We paid for Egypts military and they overthrew their government! Enough already!!!

    January 12, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  10. chrissy

    Lmao @ minnie and your 7:20 post. Point made! And CONgress is the direct opposite of PROgress so what do we doers do to fix that lil problem?

    January 12, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Give them their gold watch and wish them a happy retirement!

      January 13, 2014 at 2:36 am | Reply
  11. Mike

    It's not just Bush. President Obama refuses to arm the Iraqi Army because he does not trust the govt there leaving the govt with AKs fighting all kinds of terrorism in Iraq. Also, the Republicans' support for the terrorists in Syria encourages Saudia Arabia and Qatar to send money and weapons to terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

    January 12, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Reply
    • Ron Simpson

      I believe Obama knows we have no business over there except through diplomacy.

      January 12, 2014 at 8:43 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Obama arms support might end up with the Iranians?

      January 13, 2014 at 2:37 am | Reply
  12. Ron Simpson

    The only solution may be to do our best to contain it and provide support for the refugees, and let the sides fight it out until they are thoroughly tired of their own destruction and slaughter. The Middle East MUST solve this cultural/political problem themselves. Any hint that the solution is sourced in the West (or outside the ME) will never result in a permanent solution.

    All of the lives and money we spent were a total, misguided waste. In the days before the Iraq War, I listened to a long-time military and diplomatic analyst who said on an NPR interview "e.g. The minute we go in there, we will be unleashing the forces that will result in civil war between the cultural factions". He sounded right to me then. Why does our Neo-Con faction still hold any sway??! We might as well have just murdered our troops and countless Iraqis. Have we learned our lesson? I wonder, especially after reading some comments.

    January 12, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      It wasn't just the neocons that took us to Iraq.
      If you own a gas-burning internal combustion automobile– you are just as much a part of the problem.
      If you wear polyester and synthetic fibers– you are just as much a part of the problem.
      If you use rubber and plastic products– you are just as much a part of the problem.
      America has a petroleum addiction– and if we are only providing a measly 31% of it domestically– guess what? The rest of it has to come from somewhere....

      January 12, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Reply
      • Ron Simpson

        And none of those were/are good reasons to go into Iraq or anywhere into he ME. Look at China's ME foreign policy and how much oil they take out of there. How many Chinese have died getting it?

        January 12, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
    • minnie mouse

      ...and from what wellspring of hope do you draw your inspiration that they will settle these disputes that have gone on for hundreds of years? There is something strange in the psychology where they actually nurture their grievances and elevate them to almost a religious experience. They tell them and retell them and retell them some more. And each version gets a little bit more tragic and dramatic and victimizing. You see it on comment boards also. "Remember the time the mean Americans/Isrealis tried to kill ..... back in 1953?" And unless the reader happens to be familiar with the event, one can hardly understand what actually factually took place half a century ago because the details have been so contaminated intentionally. The function of this contamination is to keep the victim story active, energizing, and justifying the continuation of the conflict.

      January 13, 2014 at 2:48 am | Reply
  13. Fr33th1nk3r

    "Why Iraq is in Turnoil"

    ANSWER: Muslim countries do not know how to govern themselves responsibly. Self-determination (or what passes for it in that part of the world) in Muslim countries always turns into hegemonies, militias, and bloodshed.

    January 12, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Reply
    • Ron Simpson

      Because we (primarily us and the Brits) have designed their national borders and their political systems for 100 years. Until they solve their disputes themselves, they will remain on the edge or in the midst of civil war. We've been screwing up the ME for 100 years and may have suffer the consequences for 100 more.

      January 12, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Reply
      • minnie mouse

        Its certainly a good thing that they aren't screwing anything up for themselves, isn't it.

        January 13, 2014 at 2:51 am |
  14. sickofitall

    Fareed "Petraeus is a masterstroke by Obama" Zakaria....why would anyone in their right mind listen to this loser about any subject at any time?

    January 12, 2014 at 8:45 pm | Reply
  15. Tell the TRUTH

    Why Iraq is in turmoil?
    The real answer lies in the pages of Quran and in the life of Mohammad.
    ONLY WHEN people strictly follow Jesus Christ, I mean the real Jesus Christ of the Bible, the Son of God who died for our sins, will see an Iraq with calm.

    January 12, 2014 at 8:56 pm | Reply
    • John Smith

      Dude, your an air-head.

      January 13, 2014 at 12:57 am | Reply
  16. david

    Bush did not make a mistake. He simply followed the orders of Pentagon, which is the real ruler of USA. The sectarian violence is the deliberate genocide the West is perpetuating in the Middle East. And I don't really care.

    January 12, 2014 at 9:04 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      so now the West is to blame for the choice that these groups make to fight among themselves? LOL Covering all your We're-Innocent -on-Everything bases, I see.

      January 13, 2014 at 2:54 am | Reply
      • david

        They are just mindless ideots, but they only react when the ambient conditions are right. The West created the perfect environment for sectarian violence to blossom so as to weaken the Middle East to get it ready for consumption during the next Great Depression. Of course it is the West's fault. Who can blame these moreons. Where do they get their weapons?

        January 13, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
    • minnie mouse

      Where does the middle east get their weapons? I don't know. Iranian, USA, Russian, Chinese, and maybe some Israeli Windows 3.0 weapons? etc.etc. I don't see how this equals "the West".

      January 15, 2014 at 12:14 am | Reply
  17. Danlien

    Better the Muslims to kill each other then try and kill us.

    January 12, 2014 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  18. saywhat

    At least Obama kept us out of Syria despite intense pressure from S.Arabia and Israel to get militarily involved.And again standing up to relentless pressure from these two 'allies', he is trying to avoid another disastrous M.East war -Iran.

    January 12, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  19. JumpinTheGun

    Everybody knows about why Iraq was destroyed. It is because of the USA's invasion of Iraq. They did not get oil so spread the Nuclear and chemical weapon rumor as well as sectarian division as per the divide and rule which was inherited from the British.

    January 12, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Your timeline is off. The WMD and chemical weapons stories were prior to any discoveries about the availability or lack thereof of oil. So you'll need to recalculate your blaming of how the sectarian fighting wasn't the fault of those actually squabbling but was actually the fault of the USA. How do you manage to fit the fact that the intra fighting has been going on for hundreds of years into your neat little "its the USA's fault". You can't.

      January 15, 2014 at 12:06 am | Reply
  20. JumpinTheGun

    What ever US of A touched or supported was destroyed. Vietnam, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Korea. Karma is like circle and will get the US of A sooner or later.

    January 12, 2014 at 10:57 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Karma is no friend of the Middle East either. Karma is deaf to propaganda and self-declarations of eternal innocence. Be prepared.

      January 13, 2014 at 2:58 am | Reply
  21. saywhat

    A fellow blogger blamed me for being biased against the Bush admn for holding them responsible for Iraq disaster.
    Invasion and occupation of Iraq, a blunder planned much ahead of 9/11 attacks, a crime against American interests and humanity. A blunder that set us back irreparably in terms of geopolitical, strategic and economic terms.
    A blunder that got us to the brink of bankruptcy , thousands of American lives lost, thousands wounded, scarred for life, disabled, mental disorders, suicides. trillions of dollars of our national treasure squandered and counting. No gains. The horrible consequences to haunt us for decades to come.
    And we are not supposed to put the blame squarely where it belongs?

    January 12, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      I would appreciate factual sources for your statement that the American invasion of Iraq was "planned much ahead of the September 11" attacks.

      January 15, 2014 at 12:30 am | Reply
  22. Nick

    Haha. Right out of the Obama Playbook. I'm going to take this a step further. I think it was Fox News' fault for the fact that Shiite's and Sunni's hate each other. And I think Ronald Reagan also caused Muslims in general to hate Jews.

    January 12, 2014 at 11:02 pm | Reply
    • saywhat


      January 12, 2014 at 11:04 pm | Reply
  23. saywhat

    I deliberately did not add the tens of thousands of innocent lives lost, generations to suffer, 'cause that were not us.
    "Mission accomplished".

    January 12, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  24. saywhat

    Unfortunately @Nick your comments do not make any sense.
    You are trying to say that Shia-Sunni divide was the reason Bush invaded Iraq. That would make it even worse and all those lies that were cooked up to bamboozle American public would look even more ludicrous.
    And that somehow Reagan who caused "Muslims to hate Jews" as you put it was also a factor in Iraq disaster/
    You must be trying to make us laugh.Thankyou.

    January 12, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  25. saywhat

    Anyway folks, Iraq 'turmoil' and how it all began is part of history no matter how one tries to interpret it.
    Good night.

    January 12, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  26. chrissy

    Thank you @ saywhat. Most of us appreciate your intelligence and diligence in trying to educate people no matter how stubbornly they try to fight that education! And you know we know you to be an honorable kind man. Good night dear friend!

    January 12, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  27. Gonzo

    This virulent virus in the ME eats its host.

    January 12, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  28. chrissy

    Ty @ Keith! I still cannot believe the number of people who think its perfectly acceptable for our behavior. Seriously WHY is it ok for the US to always determine how other countries are run? Even if it means forcing them! Its NOT ok!

    January 12, 2014 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  29. chrissy

    First of all @ Keith, thank you for your service for our country. And yes youre correct we, as in the US, are pretty presumptious arent we? Seriously! Our country isnt doing so great that we should be foisting our political processes on any other country! And who appointed the US as the world police anyway?

    January 13, 2014 at 12:10 am | Reply
    • Keith

      Thanks, Chrissy

      January 15, 2014 at 12:09 am | Reply
  30. chrissy

    Lol @ John Smith, are you speaking of Gonzo? Because i had similar thoughts after reading his post. In fact the first thing that i thought was gonzo wierdo!

    January 13, 2014 at 1:13 am | Reply
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