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A convoy carrying Qassim Fahdawi sped down the desert highway toward Baghdad last month, but roughly 12 miles west of the capital, a roadside bomb blasted the vehicles. Fahdawi, the governor of Anbar province, escaped unharmed, but three of his bodyguards were injured.
Fahdawi is no stranger to assassination plots. But this time was different. The bomb went off near an Army checkpoint manned by soldiers from the Muthanna Brigade, a notorious, largely Shiite unit that has been accused of human-rights violations against Sunnis.
“I was previously targeted by Al Qaeda,” Fahdawi said the next day in an interview with a local TV station. “But this time, unfortunately, I was targeted by ex-militia military elements?…?who do not want the best for Iraq.”
Roughly a month before the last American troops are set to leave the country, the attempt on Fahdawi’s life appears to be yet another sign that the vicious, sectarian bloodletting that nearly tore Iraq apart almost five years ago may be set to resume. Only this time, there will be no American military presence to mitigate the carnage. With the remaining 20,000 American troops in Iraq set to depart by Jan. 1, the United States—despite a war that has cost roughly $1 trillion and taken the lives of close to 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis—is set to leave behind a country still on the brink of chaos.
Rather than decreasing sectarian tensions, Iraqi leaders appear to be pouring fuel on the fire. In recent weeks the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has arrested more than 600 alleged former Baathists who are suspected of plotting against the central government.
To many Iraqi Sunnis, who are already wary of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, the crackdown looks like an all-out witch hunt. “I’m afraid a clash will happen in a very violent way,” says Salih Mutlaq, a deputy prime minister who is Sunni.
It could get even messier. The reigniting of sectarian tensions could easily draw in regional heavyweights like Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are locked in a heated battle for power and influence across the Middle East. In fact, there are already disturbing signs that the two countries are preparing for a showdown inside Iraq once the American military pulls out.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. Over the summer there were lengthy and labored talks with Iraqi officials about how many troops would stay behind in Anbar and the Kurdish provinces in the country’s north. Neither the U.S. government nor its Iraqi counterparts anticipated a complete military withdrawal. But as the weeks passed, American officials were unable to get the Iraqis to agree to legal immunity for troops who remained—a necessary condition, according to the White House. To be legally binding, the Status of Forces agreement had to be approved by the Iraqi Parliament, according to American legal experts. And no Iraqi politician, certainly not Maliki, seemed willing to stake his political future on supporting legal immunity for American soldiers.
Of course, even after a full withdrawal, the United States will still have a sizable diplomatic presence in the country. A whopping 16,000 American personnel will work at the embassy in Baghdad, the vast majority of whom will be security contractors. There will also be some 200 American military personnel who will help train the Iraqi military to use the tanks, F-16s, and other equipment it has purchased from the United States. And the CIA has been quietly negotiating to see what intel and counterterrorism missions it can inherit from the military.
All these Americans will be in the line of fire once the troops withdraw. Last month the fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a blunt statement about American staff working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after the Dec. 31 deadline. “All of them are occupiers, and it is a must to fight them after the deadline,” Sadr wrote. That is no idle threat, given the Mahdi Army’s bloody history of attacks against the U.S. military.
Sadr and his supporters could also increase sectarian tensions; recently they lauded Maliki’s arrests of alleged Baathists. “If we forgive these killers, then we are not respecting our martyrs and widows,” says Sheikh Talal Saadi, a senior Sadr representative in Baghdad.
The crackdown has provoked a serious backlash from Sunni leaders. Many are now calling for an autonomous region—which is legal under the Iraqi Constitution—that could include the three provinces of Salahuddin, Nineveh, and Anbar, the last of which is thought to be sitting on massive oil and gas fields. In response, Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi officials have criticized the move as an attempt to weaken the central government.
If an autonomous Sunni region is established, Iraq would face a de facto split along sectarian lines. And that might tempt Shiite Iranian leaders and the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia to ramp up their support for their respective communities in Iraq. A former senior Iraqi official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, says he has seen documents indicating that the Saudi government has begun funding Sunni leaders to push for an autonomous region.
Any attempt by the Saudis to increase their influence will not sit well with Iran, which has deep ties with the Iraqi government as well as militant leaders like Sadr. The depth of their influence was on display three weeks ago: the same day that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee about the readiness of Iraqi troops, the head of the Iraqi Army, Babakir Zebari, was being feted like a royal in Tehran. Zebari, who has made headlines in the past by announcing that American troops should stay in Iraq until 2020, seemed to be hedging his bets. He met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the trip, as well as with top commanders of the Revolutionary Guards.
Critics say the White House had a chance to curb Iranian influence but was too busy looking for an exit. The result, according to Doug Feith, one of the Bush administration’s chief architects of the war, pushed Maliki toward greater reliance on Iran. Others, however, defend the developments as inevitable, given the divided nature of Iraqi politics. “You want a democratic Iraq, you get a democratic Iraq,” said Douglas Ollivant, the former director of the National Security Council.
Regardless, the increasingly close ties between Baghdad and Tehran have left some Iraqis wondering whether the end of one occupation will signal the beginning of another.
“The occupation of Iraq by the United States was a disaster,” says Deputy Prime Minister Mutlaq. “What’s more disastrous is their irresponsible withdrawal. They are leaving Iraq completely occupied by Iran.”
And Iran’s leaders have no intention of pulling out.
Babak Dehghanpisheh is Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s Beirut bureau chief. He has been covering the Middle East for Newsweek for the past 10 years. During that time he has reported on stories ranging from the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and the rise of Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon. In 2002 he was the lead reporter for “The War Crimes of Afghanistan,” which won a National Headliner Award and was a finalist for the National Magazine Award.
Eli Lake is the senior national-security correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He previously covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times. Lake has also been a contributing editor at The New Republic since 2008 and covered diplomacy, intelligence, and the military for the late New York Sun. He has lived in Cairo, Egypt, and traveled to war zones in Sudan, Iraq, and Gaza. He is one of the few journalists to report from all three members of President Bush’s axis of evil: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
For inquiries, please contact The Daily Beast at email@example.com.