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Why U.S. military involvement will hurt Iraq and increase suicide terrorism

Iraqis gather at the site of a bombing at the Justice Ministry in Baghdad in 2009. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

Over a decade ago, I published a piece in the New York Times predicting that America’s occupation of Iraq would lead to the rise of an enormous suicide terrorism campaign and increase the risk of suicide attacks against Western civilians from countries associated with U.S. occupation. This prediction came true. The same data also promises that American military reengagement in Iraq to help suppress the current Sunni revolt would lead to a resurgence of anti-American suicide terrorism.

This prediction was based on my compilation of the first complete database of all suicide terrorist attacks around the world, totaling in 188, from 1980 to 2001. The data showed that Islamic fundamentalism was not the root cause of suicide attacks like 9/11. Rather, what triggers this phenomenon most of the time is a perceived foreign occupation. The martyr videos of the 9/11 hijackers and Osama bin Laden’s numerous statements confirm what the hard data shows.

The prediction that the U.S. occupation of Iraq would lead to numerous terrorist attacks against the West was confirmed by al-Qaeda’s bombings of London (2005), Madrid (2004) and numerous smaller attacks. Even Donald Rumsfeld felt compelled to ask rhetorically in 2004 Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing?”

By the time America withdrew from Iraq in 2010, the phenomenon of suicide terrorism had exploded around the globe, totaling more than 2,500 suicide attacks (nearly 1,000 of which occurred in Iraq alone).

To be clear, occupation means the exertion of political control over territory by an outside group, whether that outside group is a foreign power or a distinct and separate local group occupying another internally.

The American occupation of Iraq was an example of the former: controlling the local government politically and militarily. The current situation in Iraq is different, but still under the umbrella of foreign occupation. It is an example of “internal occupation.” ISIS and many local Sunnis perceive the Shiite-led government as occupying and controlling Sunni territory. They are now fighting (via suicide terrorism) for their own self-determination. Indeed, in 2013, 75 percent of the 171 suicide attacks in Iraq occurred in Sunni-majority regions against targets intended to diminish Shiite control.  (See map below.)

Starting with the first serious discussions of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the threat from al-Qaeda diminished almost entirely. Partly, this was because of improved immigration controls, intelligence gathering and other security measures. But mostly, al-Qaeda lost energy (the ability to recruit and send people to die for its cause) as America disengaged from the largest occupation of a Middle Eastern country by the West in modern history.

With the recent collapse of numerous cities in Iraq to a terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, there have been numerous calls from both the left and the right to reengage the region militarily. Both sides are ignoring the root causes of this problem. The interests at stake in Iraq are not simply humanitarian concerns, oil or preserving American credibility, but more fundamentally the size of the future terrorist threat to the United States and other Western countries. Far from hurting the terrorists, reengaging Iraq (and/or engaging Syria) would put us back on the path of a rising terrorist threat that has taken us over a decade to escape.

From the perspective of the local groups to nations in the Persian Gulf region, there is no impartial American military policy. Americans might think that we would be fighting for humanitarian reasons — but we would absolutely not be perceived that way. We would be seen — again — as foreign occupiers and become a target for terrorist organizations again. Given the magnitude of U.S. military power, even modest steps to help the Shia against the Sunnis would actually serve as a catalyst for Sunni resistance, including and especially suicide terrorist organizations. Worse, given the rising Shia anger against the Sunni revolt, there could well be mass atrocities against the Sunnis. U.S. involvement would make us a direct accomplice to their massacre, which we would be helpless to prevent.

The root cause of the Sunni revolt is not the 4,000 or so members of ISIS, but the 5 million Sunni civilians cooperating with them. Sunni cooperation and support for terrorist organizations is mainly the result of the Iraqi Shiite-led government’s exclusionary and harsh policy toward them. Hence, adding more occupation into the mix and aggressive brutality against the Sunnis will only widen Sunni militant resistance.

On the left, critics of President Obama are calling for American involvement in the name of humanitarian intervention. On the contrary, the humanitarian threat is not only from ISIS, but also from the Shiite majority, which very possibly stands to massacre many Sunnis. We should not take sides in an ethnic conflict likely to lead to bloodbath, especially because our involvement would only make matters worse.

On the right, critics of the president are calling for involvement in the name of protecting American interests and credibility — to not lose the gains made during the Iraq war. They fear that the region will again become a haven for anti-American terrorism. However, these critics have it backwards. Just as the U.S. conquest of Iraq released a wave of anti-American suicide terrorism, so to0 would its suppression of the Sunnis create more anti-American terrorists than it would stop.

So, the most important steps to advance American national security and to help the Iraqi people are political, not military. We should urge the Maliki government to return to the policy of supporting “Sunni Awakening” militias, which presented a critical alternative to terrorism. We must also be sure to condemn any civilian massacres, by either side. If Iran will support these political steps, all the better.

The situation in Iraq is indeed messy. But for the many reasons listed above, U.S. military involvement can only hurt, not help.

Robert Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. He is the author of two prominent books on suicide terrorism. You can learn more about CPOST by visiting its Web site or on Twitter.