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Iraq’s crisis: Don’t forget the 2003 U.S. invasion

Members of  Iraqi security forces patrol an area near the borders between Karbala Province and Anbar Province on June 16, 2014. (Mushtaq Muhammed/Reuters)
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We're all watching the situation in Iraq with sadness and horror. ISIS, a loathsome jihadist group incubated in Syria, has carved out a large territory and plunged the wider region deeper into crisis. There are reports of shocking mass executions, while tens of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing their homes as ISIS pushes forward.

In Washington and elsewhere, pundits and politicos are indulging in the blame game. Some accuse the Obama administration of being too keen to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011; others harp on the provocative Shiite sectarianism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has created conditions for Sunni extremists like ISIS to flourish.

Curiously, quite a few of the most outspoken critics were prominently involved in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Rarely in their current diagnoses do they acknowledge the tumult unleashed after the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In a lengthy piece posted to his personal Web site, former British prime minister Tony Blair went so far as to dismiss the legacy of the war he helped start. "We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused [the current crisis]. We haven't," Blair wrote. He added: "The fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it."

Blair has been widely criticized for his comments in the U.K., where there's a sharper conversation on the consequences of the Iraq war and the reasons invoked more than a decade ago to justify the invasion. Blair is right that the various tensions now smoldering in Iraq lie "within the region" -- but outside intervention had real effects. Here's why that should remain better in focus.

It opened a Pandora's box of sectarianism
Saddam Hussein was a nasty, murderous tyrant who brutalized much of his country and was guilty of war crimes. But Iraq under the rule of his nominally secular Ba'ath party was not the sectarian charnel house that it became in the years following Hussein's overthrow and eventual execution.

The Iraqi politicians who found traction in U.S.-occupied Iraq did little to build an inclusive, pluralist politics. Nor did they have much incentive. Traumatized by decades of authoritarianism and indulged by foreign partners, they sought to consolidate their own political fiefdoms to the detriment of the fragile Iraqi state.

The Sunni-Shiite bloodletting that followed scarred communities that for centuries had lived in relative peace alongside each other. The divisive politics of Maliki's government inflamed passions in Iraq's Sunni heartland, while violence in Baghdad saw the once cosmopolitan capital become heavily Shiite.

Meanwhile, the invasion's aftermath hollowed out the country's Christian population, with hundreds of thousands fleeing as refugees. They were once protected minorities in both Iraq and Syria, but the upheavals that followed the collapse of Ba'athist rule have made them vulnerable targets.

It spawned terror groups and redrew the geopolitical map
ISIS emerged as al-Qaeda splinter group operating in the wake of the invasion, a fringe, lethal faction within a larger Sunni insurgency. While beaten back by the U.S. surge in 2007, the elements that would reform as ISIS would find fertile ground amid Syria's civil war, where it began a campaign of conquest and slaughter that has yielded it a virtual mini-state.

Now, as ISIS's onslaught nears Baghdad, Shiite militias that had first risen up in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion are  once more mustering and joining the battle. Many of these factions didn't exist -- or were deep underground -- under Hussein. This is not to say that Saddam Hussein deserved to remain in power. But the security vacuum after his fall and the presence of foreign occupiers led to Iraq becoming a breeding ground for jihad and religious extremism. It also led to Iran developing significant influence in a neighboring country that was once ruled by a bitter foe.

It offers many cautionary tales
On Monday, the strategic northern city of Tal Afar fell to ISIS fighters. It's known for its sizable population of ethnic Turkmen, which has made the city vulnerable to assault in the past. But in 2006, as the Associated Press notes, Tal Afar was hailed by the U.S., then waging counterinsurgency, as a model of success. President George W. Bush said then that the city showed "the outlines of the Iraq that we and the Iraqi people have been fighting for: A free and secure people are getting back on their feet." Last week, ISIS seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and another lapsed U.S. success story. In 2004, it was the petri dish for then-Gen. David Petraeus's much-vaunted tactics of pacification.

These were all fleeting victories that eventually serve, more than anything, as reminders of the limits of American power and Washington's ability to reshape facts on the ground. Petraeus's "Mosul model" is now just one more forgotten chapter in a long, bloody journey that began in 2003. The wishful thinking of U.S.  leadership in Iraq was on display in the build-up to the war, when its main proponents showed little appreciation for the resources and troops the U.S. would have to deploy in a near-decade long occupation.

Now, the U.S. faces a hard set of choices, in a context shadowed by conflicting imperatives and the agendas of other regional powers. One can understand the caution shown by the administration -- at least as much as the zeal of those who want the U.S. to be embroiled in the region once more.