Duncan Hamilton: We can’t wash our hands of perfect storm brewing in the Middle East

WITH another 72 innocent citizens murdered, the vision of a peaceful era of unity and cohesion in Iraq seems far distant.

The most recent killings were apparently part of a targeted and sectarian bombing campaign aimed at Shiites by Sunni extremists. They are a sobering reminder both of the scale of the challenge in Iraq and the ongoing responsibility we, the “liberators”, continue to have for the country we chose to invade.

This crisis has the seeds of a perfect storm. Since US troops left Iraq on 18 December, matters have deteriorated. The minority Sunni vice-president is effectively already in exile under Kurdish protection with an arrest warrant issued by the majority Shia Government in relation to “terrorism” charges. The Sunni participation in both the Parliament Cabinet of the National Unity Government has been suspended. This week, those vacancies were filled by President Maliki. Sunni ministers have been replaced by Shia – still further increasing the sense of Sunni marginalisation. More than that, the attacks this week were deliberately aimed at Shiite areas. They occurred in the run-up to Arbaeen, a Shiite holy day. The perpetrators are accordingly assumed to be Sunni insurgents. The sense of destabilisation is both obvious and exceptionally dangerous.

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Into that add the nightmare of Syria. The eventual fall of the Assad government will have an unintended consequence in Iraq in that it will probably deliver a Sunni majority government in Syria. The border between Iraq and Syria is almost entirely in Sunni-dominated areas. Those provinces have therefore responded to the recent Syrian crisis by revisiting the previously unattractive prospect of setting up as autonomous regions. Interestingly, there is express provision in the new constitution for them to do so – an essential concession made back in 2005 to get the new government up and running. The attraction for those provinces of closer alignment with a Sunni-dominated Syria is matched by the fear amongst a Shia community previously brutally suppressed under Saddam Hussein and the Sunni-Baath Party.

Enter Iran. The removal of the US presence creates an obvious vacuum. The fear is that Iran will inevitably gain influence in Iraq, something which some Sunnis already allege is the ultimate goal of President Maliki. The impact on the region of an emboldened Tehran? Well, let’s just say the Israelis won’t be alone in viewing that as the worst of all worlds.

In fairness, the US is cranking up the pressure on Iran and the EU finally appears to have reached something of an agreement to institute an oil embargo. Ostensibly, the embargo is about the Iranian nuclear programme, but in truth the wider role of Iran is now taking on a major importance. The threat of sanctions has led to Tehran test-firing new missiles, producing its first nuclear fuel rod, threatening a US aircraft carrier and pledging to close the Strait of Hormuz in order to drive oil prices up by 50 per cent and cripple dependant economies. Already countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece that are particularly reliant on Iranian oil have expressed concerns about the damage to their economies of such action unless they have specific and limited exemptions from an embargo. But let’s be clear – there is no chance of a significant US military intervention. This is a US election year and President Obama has neither the inclination nor the political capital to move beyond sanctions. At the very time when military intervention might have been seriously considered or at least implicitly threatened, the fallout from the invasion of Iraq makes that impossible. As Iranian sabre-rattling grows louder, the options for the rest of the world appear to be exceptionally limited.

The point is this – the region is in a moment of genuine turmoil. What we face is not just the prospect of the disintegration of Iraq, but profound and destabilising uncertainty for the region and for wider international peace and prosperity.

This chain of events was not caused by our invasion of Iraq, but that decision is inescapably part of the dynamic which takes us to where we are. Saddam was a brutal dictator. No-one can lament his passing. But let’s go back to the foreign policy objective his regime fulfilled – the containment of Iran. The cordial relations, the extension of credit, the selling of arms – those were the tools used by the US to support and entrench Saddam in the 1980s. That policy subsequently gave way to containment and ultimately to removal. And yet the price of freedom for Iraqis is their right to disagree, and maybe even to divide. With that comes a new wave of problems for the West.

Let’s remember the cost of invading Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, civilian and military. Five thousand coalition military deaths. A cost to the US of £1.2 trillion and to the UK of about £15 billion. A loss of authority for the UN and a fractured reputation for British and US foreign policy. We have to make that horror count for something. An invasion of dubious legality was bad enough. Premature disengagement would be disastrous – both for them, and for us. Having removed Saddam, we cannot simply throw our hands up in horror as events unfold. We built this – and we must have the courage and patience to defend it.