Current Sunni vs. Shiite Religious War in Iraq Tragic Legacy of 2003 U.S. Invasion

Posted June 18, 2014

MP3 Interview with Peter Van Buren, author, 24-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, conducted by Scott Harris


The current military offensive and successful advance by Sunni insurgents of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, capturing major cities across northern and central Iraq, has stunned governments across the globe, and called into question the viability of the Iraqi state. ISIS fighters, a breakaway faction of al Qaeda in Iraq, have captured key Iraqi cities including: Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi, Falluja and Tal Afar, facing little or no resistance from the Iraqi Army. In their wake, the militants have reportedly carried out mass executions of hundreds or possibly more than a thousand soldiers and civilians.

As ISIS forces move toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, alarmed politicians in Washington are looking to assign blame for what appears to be the near collapse of the U.S.-installed Iraqi government. However, many observers say the current crisis can be linked to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s policies that failed to unite the country and fueled religious hatred between the majority Shiite and minority Sunni population.

President Obama is considering taking military action in Iraq, including drone strikes in support of the Iraqi military. Although the U.S. and Iran are on opposite sides in Syria’s civil war, Washington and Tehran are reportedly now discussing ways to work together to shore up the Iraqi state. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department who served in Iraq during the war and is author of the book, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." Here, he assesses the lightning advance of ISIS insurgents and the advisability of U.S. military intervention in the current crisis.

PETER VAN BUREN: What we’re seeing in Iraq now, and Syria as well as other parts of the Mideast, is an inevitable response to the invasion of 2003. In 2003, the Middle East existed in a very uneasy, but still working balance of power. Saddam, in Iraq, was Sunni by name but essentially a powerful, secular leader who held together Iraq’s three ethnic groups by force using his secret police and the national security state to keep the minority Sunnis in power, the majority Shiites in check, and the very powerful Kurds organized – but not too organized – close, but not too close. That had gone on for some years until the United States arrived and destroyed, literally overnight, civil society in Iraq, as well as disbanding the police, the army, the garbage collectors, the people who ran the telephone and the water systems, and everything else right down to school teachers. That period of chaos in Iraq let loose the dragons that Saddam had kept in check albeit through hard violence. Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds went for each other’s throats. Over a period of almost nine years of occupation, the United States failed to effectively deal with this. It was the gorilla in the room, if not the room that dominated the gorilla. It was everything that was going on in Iraq. Every roadside bomb, every soldier that was killed, every setback was because of this inherent tension and inherent conflict that we had unleashed and failed to succeed in putting back into the bottle, if you will. That is why we’re seeing what we’re seeing today in Iraq.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What is your view of the calls now, especially from certain sectors of the Republican Party – John McCain, Lindsay Graham – those senators are calling out Barack Obama for not stepping up to take military action that they believe is necessary to address this crisis in Iraq. And Lindsay Graham and others talk about that if the U.S. does not act, that Iraq will become the staging ground for the next 9/11 terrorist attack. What do you make of these calls for military action?

PETER VAN BUREN: Well, not to start off tritely, but of course Lindsay Graham and John McCain call for airstrikes every time someone sneezes in the Middle East. And so this is nothing new, but the same posturing and the same pseudo-macho rambling that we see from there. The short answer, that if the full force of the United States – $2 trillion in expenditures, the entire U.S. Army in nine years – failed to solve the problems in Iraq, it is highly unlikely that some form of airstrikes or drone strikes or special forces can really do anything particularly significant. Airstrikes or any kind of military intervention is simply a continuation of the mistakes that we have been making continuously since 2006 – primarily, supporting one side in a triangular conflict: Sunni, Shiite, Kurd. The United States helped install Prime Minister Malaki, the guy who runs Iraq or thinks he runs Iraq right now, in 2006 under very shaky circumstances. In the elections of 2010, which I was present for and worked on as part of the U.S. Department of State, Malaki did not win the elections, but the United States stepped back and allowed the Iranians to broker a compromise solution that put Malaki in power. Prime Minister Malaki almost immediately began punishing the Sunnis around him and, to the best of his ability, ignoring the Kurds north of him. And the United States, for the four years since the troops left, has been supporting Prime Minister Malaki in these actions. Continued support of him, by airstrikes, if you will, will do nothing more but dig the hole deeper. The first rule of hole digging is when you’re in too deep, stop digging.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Peter, I wanted to ask you about partition. Not that long ago, then-Senator, now Vice President Joe Biden and others were talking about partitioning Iraq into three sections: one for the Kurds, a section for the Sunnis, and the southern part of the country for the Shiite. Is this any kind of solution or is there some kind of priority to keeping the state of Iraq unified?

PETER VAN BUREN: The state of Iraq should be written always in quotes because it is an artificial construct that the British drew literally on maps following World War I. What we’re seeing now is the process of the Middle East attempting to recreate itself along the proper regional, ethnic, religious, tribal, military, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera borders. Breaking Iraq, or allowing Iraq to naturally separate into three states was certainly a viable option in 2003, four, five-ish, somewhere in there when the three groups would have likely been willing to accept a separation and the United States Army could have enforced that by creating a buffer zone. Basically, putting itself in between the three conflict forces long enough and forcefully enough to cause them to create natural boundaries that they could live with. I think that’s what’s going to happen in the long term in Iraq whether we want it to happen or whether we help it happen or don’t help it happen. The problem is that the separation that will occur now will be long and it will be violent and it will not favor the interests of the United States. It’s too much right now in my opinion to have it break into three states in any kind of peaceful way. Anything the United States continues to do in Iraq may postpone the inevitable but it can’t stop it.

Find links to Van Buren’s articles on Iraq and additional analysis at This transcript was compiled by Evan Bieder.

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