Iraq on the Brink of Civil War, Again—U.S. Troops Could Return Any Time

AUMF still in effect


Earlier this week, fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) overran Mosul, taking over the international airport there, provincial government offices, and army facilities. About 500,000 residents fled the city, and the insurgents now have control of most of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the seat. The militants arrived at Mosul from Fallujah, which they seized at the beginning of the year, taking control then also of much of the Anbar province.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to drive the terrorists out of Mosul; a similar pledge about driving them out of Fallujah in January came to nothing. Maliki has also renewed calls for U.S. involvement in the fighting, apparently requesting a U.S. airstrike last month. Like his government's calls earlier in the year to secure a U.S. intervention in Iraq, nothing came of them. Nevertheless, the U.S. has been providing military assistance, if not outright intervention, since at least January, sending military equipment such as Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones to help Iraq's counterinsurgency efforts.

While the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent occupation played a definitive role in creating the space for Al Qaeda to establish itself in the country, as U.S. interventions often do, Maliki, with the help of the U.S. and on his own, has also contributed to the problem. Re-elected in parliamentary elections in April, Maliki has been unable as of yet to form a new government. In power for more than eight years, Maliki embarked on a campaign to crack down on his political opponents the moment the U.S. withdrew the last of its combat troops in 2011. In his book Indispensable Nation, Vali Nasr suggested Maliki may have believed he got a green light from President Obama about turning the state's apparatus on his political opponents when the president did not appear to respond negatively when Maliki expressed the idea to him. A warrant for the arrest of Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, was issued the day after U.S. troops left—he was eventually sentenced to death in abstenia. Given U.S. disengagement in Iraq, there's little indication a negative response from Obama would've made a difference in the situation.

Either way, under Maliki Iraq's government has become a kind of pale knock-off of Saddam Hussein's regime. His government has been accused of a slew of human rights abuses, including rape, torture, and executions. And despite the assertions of the Bush Administration, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was not linked to Al Qaeda. Today's Iraqi government, however, is in a death-struggle with the Al Qaeda-linked militants overrunning the country.

This year's dramatic gains by ISIS would have been much more difficult to achieve without years of political dysfunction in Iraq, including fights over oil- and power-sharing. When ISIS and other Al Qaeda linked groups threatened to push Iraq over the brink and into a civil war during the U.S. occupation, American military leaders focused on the so-called Anbar awakening. That strategy rested on the idea that engaging disaffected Sunnis in the local governing process would rob Al Qaeda-linked groups of the popular base they needed to continue operating. It worked, creating the conditions that allowed the U.S. to negotiate a withdrawal from Iraq.

Now U.S. military leaders have not ruled out new intervention in Iraq. In January, Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, formerly a commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, would not rule out eventually putting boots back on the ground in Iraq, saying while it was not yet time the U.S. ought to take a "wait and see" approach. Because the 2002 congressional authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) in Iraq has not yet been rescinded, the Obama Administration could conceivably commit troops to Iraq without any new authorization. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) submitted a bill to repeal the AUMF this January, but it has remained unacted upon by the Democrat-controlled Senate.