Global Policy Forum

Neighbors Eye Iraq's Sectarian Rift with Unease

Following the US invasion of Iraq back in 2003, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Turkey backed different sides of the conflict in the chaotic struggle between Shi’ites and Sunnis as well as between the Arabs and the Kurds. According to a 2005 embassy cable released by Wikileaks, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah warned US diplomats that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was like serving Iraq to Iran “on a golden platter”. This article argues that the US withdrawal increases these foreign maneuvers but it overlooks US influence and the weak, ethnically divided state the occupation created.

By Angus McDowall and Parisa Hafezi


December 21, 2011

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah told U.S. diplomats that by toppling the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the United States had presented Iraq to Iran "on a golden platter."

That assessment, recorded in a 2005 embassy cable released by WikiLeaks, was affirmed in the eyes of Saudi Arabia's Sunni Muslim rulers by the outbreak of sectarian squabbling that followed this week's departure of the last American troops from Iraq after almost nine years of occupation.

The decision by the Shi'ite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to seek the arrest of his Sunni vice president on terrorism charges has pushed Iraq's fragile coalition to the verge of collapse, raising the specter of renewed civil war - with alarming implications for all its Neighbors.

"The Saudi government is worried about the departure of American troops because now Iranian influence can become direct instead of indirect. There is nothing now to balance Iranian rule, so things might get worse," one Saudi official said.

The chaos that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion and toppling of Saddam turned Iraq into a regional bear pit, where Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Turkey backed different sides in a messy struggle that pitted Shi'ites against Sunnis and Arabs against Kurds.

For its part, Iraq's Shi'ite-led government fears that the uprising in neighboring Syria may unhinge its own delicate sectarian balance, no longer protected by an American military presence.

Iraq's Shi'ite leaders say they fear that a collapse of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ruling establishment, dominated by members of the Alawite Shi'ite sect and allied with Iran, may usher in a hardline Sunni government on its doorstep, risking a spillover of violence into Iraq and encouraging Iraqi Sunni militants.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and the relative power vacuum in Baghdad is going to draw in the Neighbors," said Stephen Biddle at the U.S.-based Council of Foreign Relations.


Iran arguably now has more to lose from renewed fighting than the other regional heavyweights, particularly in light of the spiraling bloodshed in Syria, an ally that allowed Tehran to extend its influence as far as the Mediterranean.

Tehran's clerical rulers were widely seen to have come out as the biggest winners after the fall of Saddam, with the emergence of their old ally Maliki and his Dawa party as the strongest political force in Iraq.

However, despite the risk that renewed unrest might alter this favorable political equation, Iran pushed for U.S. troops to withdraw, regarding their presence on its western flank as a constant threat.

"The U.S. withdrawal has created a power vacuum in Iraq, provoking Iran and Saudi Arabia to fill it in order to increase their influence in the region," said Iranian analyst Gholamhossein Mirvarzi.

"By increasing its influence in Iraq, Iran aims to challenge the regional Sunni rivals, particularly after (potentially) losing its close ally in Syria," he added.

Iranian officials say they want a calm and stable Iraq and are not seeking a Shi'ite monopoly on power.

But as international sanctions have started to bite into the Iranian economy, inflating the prices of imported goods in Tehran's warren-like bazaar, the rising tensions with Saudi Arabia have deepened its political isolation.

Meanwhile, feuding between factions loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become increasingly open.

"Considering Iran's domestic problems and the developments in Syria, Iran will not be able to play a central security role in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal," said Iranian analyst Hossein Farshchian.


Across the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has long seen Iraq as the fulcrum of a sectarian divide that could stir unrest among its own Shi'ite minority, concentrated in its oil-producing Eastern Province.

In recent months, those concerns seemed to become more urgent, as the Arab Spring inspired a revolt among the Shi'ite majority in Bahrain, whose Sunni ruling family is one of Saudi Arabia's closest allies.

Small protests erupted among Saudi Shi'ites, and persisted throughout the year. Riyadh accusing an unnamed foreign power of instigating violence, hinting that Iran was to blame.

These tensions go some way towards explaining why King Abdullah, whose mother's Shammar tribe includes thousands of Sunni Iraqis, has kept the Shi'ite Maliki at arm's length.

In 2008, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin told American diplomats that Abdullah viewed the Iraqi prime minister as untrustworthy and "Iranian 100 percent," according to a cable released by WikiLeaks.

In recent weeks, some Iraqi officials have seen a foreign hand behind the push for more autonomy by mainly Sunni provinces bordering Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.

Yet for all that, the influence of Saudi Arabia, which has still not reopened the Baghdad embassy that it closed when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991, remains limited.

"What can be worse than what has already happened? The Americans leaving will affect Iran more than Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia does not have a heavy presence in Iraq," said Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi newspaper editor with ties to the royal family.

"It had its friends there, but it kept its distance."


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