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 (455 Responses)
  1. WestCoast

    Does anyone have an answer to what proactive steps, with all the intel he had, Obama has taken to alleviate and/or mitigate what is happening now? We don't need a history lesson we need helpful ideas to stop the bloodshed now, without any of our troops being involved. And Obama is not up to that task as he hasn't been up to the task in Syria. Walking away isn't an option if we have a shred of humanity left in our country's fiber. Being a President means you inherit the sins of the past, you can't just point fingers. It goes with the job.

    January 14, 2014 at 12:03 am | Reply
  2. KEVIN

    Iraq needs to deal with this completely on their own. For them to think the US is going to come in and save them will only ensure that they will not take responsibility for their behavior to stabalize their society.

    January 14, 2014 at 12:03 am | Reply
  3. LeRoy Johnson

    It's wonderful that mooslims are slaughtering each other – saves us a lot of time and resources.

    January 14, 2014 at 12:12 am | Reply
  4. sally

    Zakaria hit the nail on the head!!!! Our bumbling around in Iraq has caused untold misery for that country and there will be fighting there for a long, long time until some strong man takes over and suppresses one side or the other.

    January 14, 2014 at 12:16 am | Reply
  5. HeyHey

    Because democrat are beholden to the Arab lobby who successfully got the democrats to abandon Iraq. Is as quite fine setting up camp right in the Middle East but democrts squandered all...

    January 14, 2014 at 2:21 am | Reply
  6. scott bleyle

    zakaria never mentions American K.I.A; send him home!

    January 14, 2014 at 2:25 am | Reply
    • Deji

      Typical response. Confronted with facts, and the best you can do is "send him home"?

      January 16, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      This guy is a Shia propagandist.

      January 16, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  7. shamus

    Either way, its their war now.

    January 14, 2014 at 4:51 am | Reply
  8. Susan

    Fareed, do your homework. Sunnis and Shias have been fighting for centuries.

    January 14, 2014 at 8:09 am | Reply
    • franklovesfl


      January 15, 2014 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • AF

      No doubt what small minded drivel. The battle of Karbala and its unresolved issues is why there is sectarian conflict. I have a quote here from a author on the Mongol invasions:

      "The intellectuals were distracted
      by theological disputes and the caliph was sunk in pleasures. The
      Shi‘as had their own axe to grind; the good caliph, in his wisdom, had
      their neighborhood razed to the ground and put them in chains. It is said
      that following this atrocity his Shi‘a vizier sent for Hulegu."
      That is speaking about Baghdad, Iraq and
      that was centuries before the U.S. was even a country!

      Wake up and look deeper, cultural problems are why there is trouble. The U.S. simply switched the teams, but the game goes on.

      Ignorance is the source of many more problems of the world and you aren't helping Zakaria.

      January 15, 2014 at 10:25 pm | Reply
      • asdfasdf

        no they havent been always at war. it comes and goes, how many wars did germany and france fight, or britain and france? they had a 700 year war. so whats your point?

        January 15, 2014 at 11:30 pm |
    • Deji

      That's why you don't take power from one and hand it to the other. Zakaria was one of the ones who warned that exactly this will happen.

      January 16, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • Emmit

      Wrong Susan, they were inter-marrying and had a strong civic society in Iraq before the invasion. The invasion put an end to that. Can't inter-marry when cities have been ethnically cleansed.

      January 17, 2014 at 12:30 am | Reply
  9. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Here's what I wrote on a Iraqi story yesterday on CNN, which is very relevant here.

    Iraq has been a disaster for both Iraqis' and America! In fact, Saddam was one of the very few truly secular leaders in the ME, along with Mubarak, and Assad. While Bush (led by Cheney!) subservient to Corporate greed (Halliburton etc.) and misplaced American jingoism involved us in the disastrous Iraq war (on blatant lies, & false pretexts), Obama too has been continuing that disastrous trend for altogether different reasons.

    Thanks to Obama's CLOSEST CLOSET MB supporters within & outside the admin. Huma Abedin, Rashad Hussain, Imam Rauf, and CNN's COVERT ISLAMIST Fareed Zakaria, the US is busy sacrificing all remnants of Secularism in the ME, and replacing them with MB, Al-Qaeda based radicals.

    The greatest losers in all this...... the oldest Christian communities in the ME (Coptic Christians etc.), the US & European tax payers, and World Peace, adding to millions of refugees and also economic migrants (Mostly Muslims) who are gate-crashing onto European shores (& later into America) to benefit from the enormous welfare provided by Europeans.

    ISLAMIC TROJANS like Mr. Zakaria are ENCASHING ON THIS ALLAH SENT OPPORTUNITY by waging an OVERT campaign to embrace these Muslim migrants in the garb of human rights, building greater bridges between the West & the Muslim World, providing opportunities to unemployed Muslim Youth PURPORTELY weaning them off the RADICAL ISLAMIC path they would have otherwise taken.

    Ever since Mr. Zakaria came on the national scene (CNN, Newsweek, Time) he has been waging this DECIETFUL battle to undermine Western Christian civilization from withn........in a masterly fashion.......by misusing the West's own liberties, tolerance..........ultimately paving the way for greater Islamization of the west, and destroying Western Civilization for ever!

    January 14, 2014 at 8:30 am | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      It is possible to become More Tolerant and Less Wise.

      January 14, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Reply
    • Simon

      Amit I've seen your posts where you supported the war and posts where you dont. In both your focus is on spreading islamophobia. its obvious to everyone you have an agenda and that if you need to say one thing to push that agenda you will, but if you have to say something completely opposite to do so, you'll do that too. You're not about facts at all. Any reasonable or sane person can see right through you.

      January 16, 2014 at 1:19 am | Reply
      • Islam4Foools

        No such thing as ISLAMOPHOBIA, its called ISLAMOREALISM. todays count of number of islamic bomb blasts is 22240, if telling this truth is islamophobia, i would say u dont have guts to know the filth installed within kuran and islam. Only foools can support islam and be or stay muslim, no human can be a muslim, and no muslim can be a human, both are mutually exclusive. effects of islam are very obvious.

        January 16, 2014 at 8:42 am |
    • Emmit

      Amit, you are a troll. Its obvious you hate Fareed because of some old world hate that you still harbor from the motherland. Should have left that behind in India before you came here.

      January 17, 2014 at 12:51 am | Reply
  10. Gary

    Farid, You indicated that Pres. Bush went into Iraq to promote democracy. I totally disagree that this was the intent, but it does resonate with the US public. A longer term strategy based on the fundamental principle of divide and rule would suggest that ultimately the US & Britain wanted to strengthen the shiite role in the middle east to better balance the overwhelming population of Sunnis. Consider the new relationship with Iran. Also, if this correct, then Assad and/or his Allouites have a reasonable possibility of remaining in power in Syria. Recall how the middle east and African countries were geographically designed. And of course maintaining the US dollar as the reserve currency is not irrelevant.

    January 14, 2014 at 9:12 am | Reply
  11. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    CHECK THIS OUT! Just do a Google search for the article ( I can't reproduce it here due to CNN-GPS'

    The potential benefits of a war in Iraq

    January 26, 2003

    By Fareed Zakaria

    He list a series of benefits fron the war, and provides an escape route for himself if things don't turn up the way as he PROPHESIZES, but still ends up making some far fetched claims.....check out the language below!

    Not all of this will happen. In fact, most of it will probably not happen. But not all of the bad things people predict will likely happen, either. And even if a few of the forces described above are unleashed, they will have LASTING POSITIVE EFFECTS on the region and the whole Muslim world.

    Of course, not everyone would be helped by a successful war. The ruling elites in the Middle East - particularly those that remain stubbornly set in their old ways - will be challenged, threatened and eventually overturned. For these potentates and their courtiers it would mean the end of one of the richest gravy trains in history. That is why they will fight change as fiercely as they can. But for the people of the Middle East, after the shock of the war fades, it could mean a chance to break out of the terrible stagnancy in which they now sit.

    There are always risks involved when things change. But for the past 40 years the fear of these risks has paralyzed Western policy toward the Middle East. And what has come of this caution? Repression, radical Islam and terror. I'll TAKE MY CHANCES WITH THE CHANGE!.

    January 14, 2014 at 9:37 am | Reply
    • Simon

      Amit I've seen your posts where you supported the war and posts where you dont. In both your focus is on spreading islamophobia. its obvious to everyone you have an agenda and that if you need to say one thing to push that agenda you will, but if you have to say something completely opposite to do so, you'll do that too. You're not about facts at all. Any reasonable or sane person can see right through you.

      January 16, 2014 at 1:17 am | Reply
  12. Joe

    I'm usually a big fan of Fareed, and I find his pieces typically insightful and balanced. This one, however is way way way off. Invasion of Iraq no doubt a true catastrophe, but Sunni Shia tension is far more entrenched, historical and complex. It is a disservice to simplify this conflict into such an erroneous, but probably trendy argument. It is also incredibly egocentric to believe American influence or even european colonial history can shape such a long standing schism. Examples of sunni shia contemporary conflict abound, and the sunni shia battle in syria started as an effect of the arab spring protests and intability. iranian and saudi animosity and proxy wars as well long predate the american adventures in Iraq. Other factors, including the disastrous and long standing ottoman rule as well of course Islam itself have had far more deterministic effects. Where did such an off the wall opinion piece one from?

    January 14, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  13. alvrzfmly

    This is one of the worst assessments that Fareed has published. Mnay facts are distorted and without substantiated proof of his conclusions; only speculation based on what is occurring out in the middle east.

    January 14, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  14. chrissy

    Your very welcome @ Keith, although it appears my posts have been deleted. Even so all US citizens should give more thanks to their veterans! And it breaks my heart to see so many of them homeless these days! That should NEVER be the case!

    January 15, 2014 at 1:19 am | Reply
  15. Keith

    No one wins, a few chairs at the very top get changed around with no real change in the fortunes of the people and a lot of suffering while they struggle toward peace again. Lives and generations are destroyed.

    January 15, 2014 at 8:29 am | Reply
  16. joshtheapologist

    Religion is utilized as a primary scapegoat for conflict, as one deeply rooted in history would know, all "religious" conflicts actually were during a time of political turmoil. The true cause for war: Envy. Land, resources, political power are the causes, however, this wouldn't sound convincing to an extremist being recruited. So the chief tells them it is because someone offended their religion, which infuriates and motivates action. Religion is peaceful in nature, however, it can be a powerful weapon for conflict motivation.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  17. Birchweed

    Will History record that a modern day Caligula (Ancient Rome Leader) invaded Iraq and has literally upset the balance of the whole world..... Much like his Grand Daddy? Perhaps some much wiser than I has an answer?

    January 15, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • wakeupAmerica

      Great analogy! Just like Rome, 30% of the US economy is composed of MIC (military industrial complex) Corporations. And just like Rome, again, it has resulted in the US "Empire" warring for profit. The only difference? Instead of Caligula, we have the Republicans (that profit immensely from warring). And Just like Rome, yet again, the US Empire is sinking under the debt created by its warring, while a very very few citizens grow extremely wealthy. So, alas, history must repeat itself, because we have learned nothing.

      January 16, 2014 at 12:54 am | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      the region was unbalanced long before Bush was even born. (and I'm no fan of Bush Jr.) The only variable keeping things from swirling out-of-control at any given time was Tyrannical Dictators. Bush's decision only removed that one variable, and probably temporarily. The response to almost any stressor, external or internal, seems to result in "factional in-fighting". Factions don't seem able to create any response more productive than that. Its very sad and disappointing.

      January 16, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  18. chrissy

    Hmmm there are alot of things very troubling about past actions in Iraq by US military if you've happened to read one of the lead stories on the homepage! Hard to justify any of it actually even for a veteran advocate such as myself!

    January 15, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  19. shamus

    That ridiculous, they have been fighting for centuries.

    January 16, 2014 at 7:58 am | Reply
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