The United States was the undeniable superpower that had defeated the communist bloc with an aggressive military strategy and promoting a global free market economic system that became a strong pressure for the Soviet Union, leading eventually to its collapse in December 1991. It was during this epoch, between August 1990 and February 1991, that the US, with George H. Bush (father) as president, launched its first war against the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, after it invaded its neighbor Kuwait because of a dispute over the property of oil fields in the Persian Gulf.
The US defeated Saddam Hussein in just six weeks with an international coalition of 35 countries, the largest since World War II, but it did not occupy nor remove the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein to not destabilize the region. Instead, the United Nations imposed severe economic and military sanctions on Iraq, which were frequently broken by Saddam's government. Because of this, the Bill Clinton administration led in 1998 a resolution at the UN that threatened Iraq with "severe consequences" if it did not comply with "its international obligations".
Then, the 9/11 attacks in 2001 shattered America’s sense of invulnerability during the conservative government of George W. Bush, who led firstly an invasion in Afghanistan because it protected Osama bin Laden. Bush continued his war rhetoric and stated in 2002 that he had a religious obligation to fight against an "Axis of Evil", composed by North Korea, Iran and Iraq, which supposedly were developing weapons of mass destruction and threatening US national security.
At the UN plenary session, the United States presented in 2003 with its Secretary of State, Colin Powell, fake evidence to make the world believe that the government of Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and supported al-Qaeda. Despite lacking a UN mandate to take action, Bush gave the order to 150,000 soldiers to invade Iraq in March 2003, with Britain, Spain and Poland as main allies, which contributed altogether with 50,000 additional troops that defeated the army of Saddam Hussein in just one month. Eventually, the US managed to build a broad international coalition of 40 countries to administrate the occupation of Iraq and form a new political system until its withdrawal in 2011.
Islam is mostly divided between Sunni and Shia branches. The first one believes that the successor of Prophet Muhammad should be elected from among those capable of leading strictly the teachings of the Koran, while the second wants that religious leadership should stay within Muhammad's family lineage. There are big tensions between both groups because Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Sunni leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of Imams which they believe belonged to the Prophet's family. Moreover, these religious divisions are connected to geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, as regional power Iran leads a list of countries of Shia majority, and its big rival, Saudi Arabia, leads the countries of Sunni majority.
Historically, Saddam Hussein favored the Iraqi Sunni minority and oppressed the remaining Shia majority and Kurdish groups. But when the new US-imposed government fired hundreds of thousands of Sunni public servants and excluded them from participating in public life in favor of Shiites and Kurds, a Sunni insurgency emerged that targeted mainly international US-led soldiers. This insurgency was composed of decentralized small cells of different backgrounds, including socialists, nationalists, radical Islamists and foreign fighters who wanted to do the Jihad, and used weapons abandoned by the army of Saddam Hussein.
In 2005, two major elections and a referendum were held in Iraq to choose a Parliament and a Constitution. The new political system of Iraq was designed in a way that no single party could get a majority by its own; instead, a consensus with a majority of two-thirds was needed to govern the country. The Iraqi Constitution also gave broad individual rights as long as they did not violate traditional Islamic principles, and the oil fields remained under Iraqi control.
Nevertheless, a big problem was that the Sunni population boycotted the elections with a turnout as low as 2% in some regions. Moreover, armed Sunni groups attacked voting stations provoking the death of 50 people arguing that the system was rigged in favor of the main religious Shiite coalition, and accused Iran of direct involvement.
When the elections were finished, the US-led international occupying coalition transferred in 2006 to the new government much of its civilian control, and Saddam Hussein was finally hanged for crimes against humanity. At the same time, the Sunni insurgency started to direct its attacks also on Iraqi government forces and rival groups, so a civil war started. This conflict in Iraq saw its bloodiest months between 2006 and 2007, when around 50,000 civilians and 1,800 US soldiers were killed, and 5 million Iraqi civilians were forced to flee to other regions or abroad.
By 2007, entire neighborhoods in the capital Baghdad were ethnically cleansed by Shia and Sunni militias and sectarian violence had broken out in every Iraqi city where there was a mixed population. The deadliest attack during the war came on 14 August 2007, when 800 civilians were killed by suicide bombs that destroyed a non-Muslim village belonging to the Yazidi minority. This, after the Yazidis stoned to death a teenage girl accused of dating a Sunni Arab man and converting to Islam.
As a consequence, Bush was forced to steadily increase the number of US units in Iraq until 2018, when it reached a peak of 157,800 soldiers deployed. This strategy seemed to work, as the overall violence decreased 80% by 2011, when Obama officially ended the US occupation of Iraq.
In 2014, Iraq was in political chaos with a new government yet to be formed following national elections, and the insurgency was again reaching new heights of violence. At the same time, the new Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), established itself as a split from al-Qaeda, which ISIS considered had too narrow objectives by limiting its activities to only doing Jihad. Instead, ISIS wanted to create a totalitarian state that would cover the ancient Caliphates of the Middle Ages as the best strategy to fight against the West. The war between ISIS and the central government lasted during the following three years, and both Obama and Trump increased the deployment of US air force in Iraq, which, together with Russian, Israeli and Kurdish forces specially, helped to officially defeat ISIS in 2018.
After two years of relative political stability and low levels of violence, the Iraqi Parliament voted in 2020 for all foreign troops to leave the country, ending an agreement with the United States that had again placed 5,200 soldiers in Iraq. Donald Trump objected to withdrawing these troops and threatened Iraq with sanctions over this decision, while Joe Biden has remained unclear about what to do.
The latest turmoil in Iraq originated after the elections of October 2021, when the charismatic and nationalist Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, a critic of both Iranian and American influence in the country, was unable to form a government after becoming the largest political fraction by winning 74 out of 329 seats in parliament. But because of the required two-thirds majority to elect the political leaders of the country, the pro-Iranian parties were able to boycott any attempt to form a government. As a response, on 23 June 2022, al-Sadr ordered his 73 deputies to resign and so the Parliament nominated a Prime Minister and new deputies to take over the positions that the Sadrists had left vacant.
After this, al-Sadr instructed his supporters to storm the Parliament located in the Green Zone, a heavily fortified area in Baghdad, which they accomplished to do, and by August 29, when al-Sadr announced his retirement from political life, protestors took over the presidential palace, causing the death of at least 23 people. The Iraqi Army has announced a nationwide curfew as protests have spread to other major cities around the country, while al-Sadr has called for the end of the violence. The future in Iraq is still very uncertain, and this will not help to bring peace and prosperity in the Middle East.