The recent escalation in violence and turmoil in Iraq after the unfortunate bombing in Samarra of one of the holiest Shi’ite shrines is considered to be the most dramatic event since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Some have equated the incident with the 9/11 attack, insofar as it could eventually decide the fate of the new Iraq and the American strategy in the Middle East.
While the likelihood of an uncontained civil war in Iraq does not seem that high, the collapse of the fragile regime and widespread chaos throughout the country is still a plausible scenario. The collapse of Iraq could produce a number of decisive short and long-term consequences at the national, regional and international levels.
At the national level, the most urgent outcome of the crisis is the mounting of new obstacles to the formation of a Shi’ite-led government based on one that has been accused of an anti-Sunni attitude and incompetence in maintaining law and order. Outgoing PM Ibrahim al-Jaafari is already under serious pressure from all sides, including secular Shi’ites and the Kurds, to withdraw his candidacy for the premiership. The Sunni faction in the parliament (with 44 seats) may harden its position regarding participation in a national unity government and the legitimacy of the political process.
The situation could either lead various factions in Iraq to pursue their own cause and establish independent governments in some sort of loose federalism, as the Kurds have already done, or precipitate the fall of the entire country into the hands of extremists. This latter would be indeed the most horrible outcome, unleashing Muslim fundamentalist forces throughout the greater Middle East. Of course, Sunnis would oppose the partition of Iraq, but Shi’ites ultimately would not mind forming their own government aligned with Iran in the southern region of Iraq. This could, in turn, upset the delicate ethnic and religious balance in neighboring countries.
At the regional level, the victory of terrorist groups could further fuel anti- American sentiments among traditional societies and impel Muslim fundamentalists to destabilize the entire region. This could lead to total transformation, including structural changes, in the Middle East political landscape. This would in turn put the fate of regional energy resources in the hands of extremists. Though this development might not please the West and many other countries, the Iranian hard-line government would at this point in time see it as a God-given opportunity.
As a matter of fact, of all Iraq’s neighbors Iran’s national interests would be most heavily affected by political, strategic and structural changes in Iraq. With their long history of rivalry, hostilities and war, the fall of Iraq could produce a number of challenges and opportunities for Iran. The major opportunity would be the total frustration of American designs for "regime change" in Iran through some kind of intervention. The most threatening challenges could be the susceptibility of Iranian Kurds and Arabs to appeals to join with their peers in a disintegrated Iraq.
Evidently, then, the continued turmoil and insurgency in Iraq offers immediate benefit for Iran, since the United States may not be tempted to use hard power against it in the foreseeable future. But at the same time, if the chaotic situation continues and passes a certain threshold, Sunni extremists could even endanger Shi’ite Iran. Among other states, Saudi Arabia has been at the top of the list of targets of terrorists and fundamentalist groups for some time. The small states of the Persian Gulf are also most vulnerable to such political upheaval. Eventually, Middle East peace plans and the democratization process would become targets and victims of the rise of fundamentalism. Under such circumstances, Israel should look for a safe place on the globe, since its nuclear deterrent would be no match for terrorism.
At the international level, the fall of Iraq could deal the most serious blow to US strategy in the Middle East and end American hegemony in the entire world. If the United States and allied forces in Iraq fail to contain and manage the crisis, we should expect immediate repercussions in the form of a domino effect in other countries, beginning with Afghanistan. The proliferation of radicalism could easily affect North Africa in the West and Muslim states in East and South Asia, including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Those in the United States and other parts of the world who push for a quick withdrawal of American troops from Iraq are evidently not conscious of these and other catastrophic ramifications.
Despite, and alongside this gloomy scenario, an optimistic assessment leads one to believe that the majority of Iraqis now have every reason to avoid bloodshed and civil war and benefit from a potentially democratic environment created at a very high price. Yet, they too seem to think that terrorism in Iraq is now a direct consequence of the American and foreign presence, and thus would prefer to see their gradual withdrawal.
Perhaps the solution to the crisis is a planned withdrawal of US forces and their replacement by United Nations peacekeeping units, composed of major elements of the existing coalition along with additional states and charged with taking over security and order in war-torn Iraq.