Iraq is a weak country that is being ground up in the struggles of other, stronger countries. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution created an anti-American Shi’ite republic that soon was at daggers drawn with both the United States and with the Sunni monarchies on the Arabian peninsula. Saddam Hussein attacked Iran. His regime survived this misjudgment in large part because Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bankrolled Iraq’s war effort with loans. When Saudi Arabia and Kuwait refused to forgive the debt—“they hired the money didn’t they?”—Hussein sent his army into Kuwait to exert pressure on the Saudis. Much to Hussein’s discomfort, the Americans pounded his army to bits in the “Hundred Hours War.” However, the George H. W. Bush administration pulled itself up short of invading the country, but Iran remained implacably hostile. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration abandoned prudence. The Americans invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein.
Whatever—tyrannical—system for maintaining social cohesion created by Saddam Hussein fell with him after the American invasion in 2003. Shi’te fell out with Sunni, and both fell out with the Americans. Eventually, a kind of peace returned, the American left, and Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government went to oppressing the Sunni minority while stealing everything officials could get their hands on, from oil earnings to soldiers’ pay.
Meanwhile, civil war fractured Syria. Iran offered its support to the Assad regime against the Sunni rebels. Then ISIS invaded Iraq from its base in eastern Syria. Many Iraqi Shi’ites turned to Iran for support, while the American shouldered their way back in, mostly by supporting Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria. The government of Haider al-Abadi leaned rather more away from Iran and toward the Saudis and the Americans. The Obama administration—sensibly determined to slow Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and recognizing that the American people didn’t want to participate in another large war in the Middle East—refused to choose sides in the Sunni-Shi’ite split. The Russians had no such obstacles: forged an alliance of convenience with Iran in order to aid their Syrian client, Assad.
Now ISIS is beaten. People are looking around at the aftermath of the storm. It is an ugly sight. Recent elections toppled Abadi’s party from first place to third. The anti-Iranian and anti-American party of Moqtada al-Sadr came first, followed by an anti-American, pro-Iranian party. Sadr quickly began plastering over these cracks by issuing emollient statements and forging a coalition with the anti-American, pro-Iranian second place finishers. “We believe in setting up an Iraqi government in the way that protects Iraq from all regional and international conflicts, making it immune from the hostility between the U.S. and Iran, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” announced one Iraqi politician. More than that, they profess to want to end the sharing-out of government ministries on a party basis. This played a role in the patronage and corruption that undermined both public support for the government and economic progress.
This sounds like a good plan, if a very ambitious one. It also would have sounded like a good plan in 2003 or 2012. Have the minds of Iraqis changed enough to make it possible? Beyond that, will Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States be content to stand down from their own rivalries in Iraq?
 Yaroslav Trofimov, “Iraq Faces Diplomatic Balancing Act,” WSJ, 15 June 2018.