Setting the Middle East ablaze: the Iraqi War, 20 years later

The fall of Saddam Hussein, which took place on April 9, 2003 with the arrival of US tanks in the center of Baghdad, had many effects in the Middle East region. The reason is essentially based on the fact that Iraq, without a solid government in power, has turned into a potential powder keg. The country, historically crossed by strong sectarian tensions and a clear division between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, has become a battleground both between the various internal actors and between regional powers.

The war of 2003 can therefore be considered as a detonator of the various Middle Eastern turbulences and that is why it has helped to change the face not only of Iraq but also of the history of the surrounding countries.

Baghdad in the Iranian orbit

During the era of Saddam Hussein, Iraq lived in an almost paradoxical situation. Although the country had a Shiite majority, the rais and his circle of loyalists in Baghdad belonged to the Sunni minority. A circumstance that has not failed to create tensions during the 24 years of regime. Saddam has often viewed with suspicion the emergence of Shiite political and religious groups, mainly based in the south of the country. This led, among other things, to an increase in the level of confrontation with Iran.

In the same year that the rais took the keys to the Iraqi government, an Islamic revolution in Tehran brought to power the Shiite theocracy led by the Ayatollahs. An eight-year war broke out between the two countries, at the end of which diplomatic relations were never fully restored.

When the US overthrew Saddam, Iraqi Shiites immediately pressed for strong representation in the new authorities. The first elections in 2005 saw the victory of Shiite parties, at the expense of Sunni ones. Iran was thus able to get its hands on Baghdad. An effect certainly not intended and almost certainly not calculated by the US on the eve of the war. Between the pro-Shiite Iraq and the Iranian theocracy, a strong convergence was born. In doing so, the Ayatollahs began to control large parts of Iraq’s new power.

The effects of this sudden change have also occurred at regional level. Tehran has begun planning the so-called “Shiite crescent” strategy. A project aimed at ideally linking its government with the new post-Saddam Iraq, with Syria governed by the Alawite Shiite Bashar Al Assad, then extending its sphere of influence to Beirut. Here, in fact, Iran has begun to exploit the axis more with the Lebanese Shiite movements and, in particular, with the Hezbollah.

This has created the basis for heated discussions throughout the region. Iranian activism has in fact sharpened the tug-of-war between Tehran and its historical antagonists. These include Saudi Arabia and the Gulf petromonarchies. The wars that broke out in the following decade, starting with the one in Yemen, are attributable to the confrontation at a distance between the Shiite theocracy of the Ayatollahs and the Sunni monarchies. It is also important to underline the growing fears for its own security by Israel, another historic rival of Iran in the Middle East.

The rise of Al Qaeda and jihadist terrorism

The radical change at the top of Baghdad has also had consequences within the Iraqi Sunni world. In some fringes, the concern has emerged to become slaves of the Shiite majority. A circumstance that has created, among other things, fertile ground for jihadist propaganda. Already in 2014, several terrorist groups were active in Iraq. Inside, not only Iraqis but also foreign fighters. Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist movement, took the reins and took advantage of the situation to launch its own holy war against US troops.

Emerging in this context was the figure of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Bin Laden himself gave him his approval for the birth of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The jihadist insurgency went on for several years, finding support especially in the province of Al Anbar, between Ramadi and Falluja. The situation was particularly serious in 2007, with the country effectively hostage to a sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Al Zarqawi was killed in 2006, but his successors implemented Al Qaeda’s activities in Iraq.

The group will later become “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) and with the new leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi will be engaged since 2011 in the Syrian civil war, alongside Al Nusra and other Islamist groups opposed to the Assad government. ISIL will become better known by the acronym of Isis and the group will give birth to the Islamic State, capable of conquering the entire north of Iraq and large portions of Syria between 2014 and 2017. Today th

e Islamic State is no more, but the country continues to be crossed by jihadist tensions.

A photo of May 26, 1998 depicting (from left to right) Aiman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and Shaikh Taiseer Abdullah. (Photo: EPA/STRINGER)

The duel between Washington and Tehran in Iraqi territory

The fight against ISIS has brought the presence of various international forces to Iraq. On the one hand, the US-led coalition, engaged in eastern Syria and northern Iraq against the caliphate. On the other, an alliance between several Shiite paramilitary groups, assisted by Iran. Behind the common intent to defeat the Islamic State, the struggle to contend for its influence in Baghdad has also emerged.

In the heart of Iraqi territory, therefore, Washington’s forces still coexist with forces close to Tehran. An incompatibility that emerged especially in 2020, when a US raid in Baghdad killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimaini, architect of the Shiite crescent project. In response, Iran bombed US bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraq has thus turned into the battleground between the United States and Iran. A tug of war that has contributed to fueling tensions throughout the Middle East and that has dragged within it also the other regional powers.

Infographic by Alberto Bellotto

The unresolved Kurdish question

The 2003 war and the end of Saddam’s power gave the Kurds the opportunity to manage their territories independently. The new Iraqi constitution recognized Kurdistan as an autonomous region with Erbil as its capital. Here is the de facto seat of a state within a state. The Iraqi Kurds have entered into trade agreements and ties independently of Baghdad.

But beyond the internal events in Iraq, the autonomy granted to the Kurds has also reignited the issue in all the other countries in the region where the Kurds constitute an important minority. Starting with Turkey. President Erdogan, after an initial opening to dialogue, has chosen a hard line against all the main Kurdish organizations. In Ankara, the fear is linked to the fact that the Kurds present in Turkey could claim the same autonomy achieved in Iraq.

In Syria, too, the issue has been at the center of discussions several times. The government in Damascus, before 2011, viewed with suspicion the activism of Kurdish groups. When civil war broke out in the country, the Kurds themselves took advantage of the problems of the central government to organize themselves. The Self-Defense Forces founded the Rojava region. Currently, the groups that bring together Kurdish fighters are partly supported by the US and are based in eastern Syria, beyond the Euphrates. This is also contributing to tensions, with Ankara starting to target Kurdish forces in Syrian territory since 2016.