THE ANNIVERSARY this week of the invasion of Iraq has generated plenty of commentary about the lessons of that war. But relatively little has been said about the current state of U.S. relations with a country that remains one of the world’s largest oil producers and a strategic crossroads of the Middle East. For the first time in decades, contemporary Iraq poses no threat to its neighbors, and parts of the country are flourishing. But violence continues, the central government appears to be crumbling, and the United States, by failing to live up to its promises of partnership, is tipping the country toward deeper trouble.
Iraq remains plagued by the sectarianism that now pervades the Middle East. Following a democratic election in 2010, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, formed a coalition government with parties representing Kurds and secular Sunnis. But he has since driven the Sunni vice president into exile, while the Sunni finance minister and Kurdish foreign minister no longer visit Baghdad, much less carry out their duties. Sunnis in western Iraq are growing increasingly restless, while the remnants of al-Qaeda continue attacks against Shiite targets in Baghdad. Tensions are also growing between Mr. Maliki and the autonomous region of Kurdistan, with both sides deploying military forces near territories claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds.
Iran’s influence over Mr. Maliki’s government is mounting, thanks in part to the Obama administration’s failure to agree with Baghdad on a stay-on force of U.S. troops. According to U.S. officials, Iraq has been allowing Iran to fly weapons through its airspace to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Repeated appeals from Washington to stop the traffic have gone unheeded, even though the United States is selling Iraq F-16s for its own air force.
The civil war in Syria, and the passivity with which the Obama administration has responded to it, have reinforced these negative trends. Mr. Maliki fears that the downfall of the Assad regime could lead to a Sunni-dominated government that would back insurrection in Sunni parts of Iraq. As with leaders across the Middle East, he perceives that the United States is unwilling to defend its interests in the region, either by stopping the Syrian bloodbath or countering Iran’s interventions.
The risk of greater turmoil or even a return to civil war in Iraq is one of several compelling reasons for more aggressive U.S. action to end the war in Syria. But the Obama administration could also do much more in Iraq itself. Visits by the new secretaries of state and defense could help to steer both Mr. Maliki and his opponents toward more constructive behavior, as could the conditioning of military sales. U.S. support for Iraq’s secular politicians and civil society groups could help ensure that elections scheduled for 2014 are free and fair.
President Obama has often given the impression that he has turned his back on Iraq, and many Americans understandably sympathize with him. But a failure to engage with the fragile state U.S. troops left behind would endanger U.S. interests and break faith with the many Americans who made sacrifices there.