The Sunni-Shia Conflict in Iraq

Tuesday's deadly coordinated bomb attacks against soft targets in Iraq bear the mark of a simmering Sunni insurgency. And despite the successes of the 2007 troop surge, our unwillingness to tackle the root of the sectarian divisions in Iraq will mean further bloodshed for the people of that country.

As I argue in my book The Sunni-Shia Conflict: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East, one of the Bush administration's most tragic blunders (aside from the invasion proper) was its insistence on approaching Iraq as if it existed in a vacuum. For too long, we have treated sectarian tensions as community-level challenges, issues that could somehow be solved if we put enough boots on the ground or made token political gestures aimed at reconciliation.

But the Sunni-Shia conflict has very little to do with personal religious grudges. It is a regional-level phenomenon that has been pursued repeatedly by powerful countries seeking regional influence. To fix Iraq, we have to fix how its neighbors deal with one another. Let me explain.

In pre-Islamic times, sectarianism was a bipolar struggle between the Christian Byzantine Empire and Zoroastrian Iran, with Iraq often acting as the frontier land between the two superpowers. Over the centuries, powerful Islamic states rose and fell in the Middle East, each embracing a sectarian vision of Islam that would act as an ideological counterweight to that of its foes.

Iraq, proverbially stuck in the middle, was a sectarian trophy to be passed around by the most powerful. Baghdad changed hands no fewer than four times between the Sunni Ottomans and Shia Iran between the years 1508 and 1638, when the city finally came under long-term Sunni domination. This Sunni rule only ended in 2003, when President Bush decided to invade Iraq, starting off the cycle once again.

Today, Sunni-Shia divisions come in the form of a resurgent Iran pitted against a coalition of Sunni-Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Whether or not our leaders articulate it (or even understand it), in the eyes of our Sunni allies America's mission in Iraq has been to uphold a Shia-ruled, Iranian-aligned country with arguably the third largest reserves of oil in the world. To put it simply, many governments in the region would benefit from our mission's failure.

Over the years, thousands upon thousands of Sunni jihadists have streamed into Iraq from places such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Egypt. Making up a small minority of the Sunni insurgency, these foreign jihadists are nevertheless responsible for some of the most gruesome acts of violence, mass-casualty events aimed at stoking a chain reaction of sectarianism.

Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, authors of a West Point study on al-Qaeda in Iraq, explain foreign involvement this way: "As long as the Saudi government views foreign Sunni militants in Iraq as a bulwark against the dominance of Iranian-influenced Iraqi leaders, it is unlikely to invest heavily in stemming the flow of Saudis traveling to fight in Iraq."*

The Sunni-Shia conflict is not a local security issue that can be solved with a troop surge, and it is certainly not a purely theological problem. The Sunni-Shia conflict is a geopolitical contest that today is being fought between Iran and its Sunni-Arab neighbors. Keeping the current simmer from boiling over into renewed civil war will mean bringing these countries to the table and finding some mutually acceptable future for Iraq. Daunting as this may sound, the alternative will only mean the loss of more Iraqi and American lives.

Nathan Gonzalez is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and author of The Sunni-Shia Conflict: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East.

* Source: Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, "Becoming a Foreign Fighter: A Second Look at the Sinjar Records," in ed. Brian Fishman, Bombers, Bank Accounts and Bleedout: al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq, Harmony Project, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 2008.