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America’s Return to Iraq

DENVER – President Barack Obama’s decision to increase the number of American troops on the ground in Iraq, and to base them in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, has sparked wide discussion. In the United States, the public debate has turned to the lessons of Vietnam, where incremental deployments led to a quagmire. But in the Arab world, the discussion is about the political ramifications of the decision: Has the US, by arming Sunni militias, abandoned hope for a unitary Iraq?

Given the scale of the threat posed by the Islamic State to Iraq and the Middle East, and its emergence at a time when the marathon 2016 US presidential election campaign is getting underway, the attention devoted to the implications of American policy is understandable. But whether the current crisis will have a happy ending – or even a tolerable one – depends far more on what the region’s players decide to do.

Since the crisis began, much has been made of whether Iraq’s Shia leaders – particularly former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his successor, Haider al-Abadi – have done enough to reach out to the country’s Sunni minority. Though Sunnis account for only around 20% of Iraq’s population, they play an outsized role in determining the country’s fate. They have been a key element of Mesopotamia’s ruling classes for centuries, and their sense of entitlement is palpable. Moreover, aside from Syria, Sunnis rule every Arab state, including where they are a minority (as in Bahrain).

Indeed, Sunnis enjoy strategic depth across the Arab Middle East. They know it, and the Shia know it as well. A Shia-led Iraq has no natural allies in the Arab Middle East.