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'Who lost Iraq' is the wrong question

By Christopher Hill, Special to CNN
updated 5:51 AM EDT, Tue October 25, 2011
U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment patrol on July 17 in Iskandariya, Iraq.
U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment patrol on July 17 in Iskandariya, Iraq.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama's critics faulted him for decision to remove all troops from Iraq this year
  • Christopher Hill: What option did U.S. really have, since Iraqis wanted troops out?
  • He says viewing the move as caving in to Iran's growing influence in region is wrong
  • Hill: The decision by Shiites and Sunnis to seek U.S. withdrawal is a test of the new Iraq

Editor's note: Christopher Hill, dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2009-10.

Denver (CNN) -- In 1949, the communist takeover of China was the beginning of another campaign in the U.S.: Who lost China? It went on for years.

The failure to conclude an agreement to maintain U.S. troops in Iraq is already becoming grist for critics to blame the administration for somehow "losing Iraq" and failing to ... do what? Convince the Iraqis they need our troops against Iranian aggression?

Christopher Hill
Christopher Hill

It is hard to see what any U.S. administration should do when a country's leaders no longer want to station our troops on their soil. Threaten them? Bribe them? Somehow offer more compelling arguments so that they will slap the side of their head with the palm of their hand and say, "oh! Now I understand!"

Are Americans, for example, truly a better judge of the Iranian threat than a people who lost millions during a savage war of attrition to that country less than 25 years ago? The Iraqis know all about Iranians and certainly don't need our sage advice on the subject.

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If it is true, as some of our often poorly informed but never in doubt talking heads would have us believe, that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is pro-Iran, perhaps they should put up the proof that this is the case. Maliki is, to be sure, tough-minded and not easy to convince of things. But the notion that he is an Iranian sympathizer -- as opposed to a highly nationalistic Iraqi -- is based on no evidence at all except for the fact that, like the majority of Iranians (and Iraqis, by the way), he is a Shiite.

When the United States led the invasion of Iraq, nobody talked much about the Shiite-Sunni divide. And when that fault line was "discovered," the explanation was that somehow the U.S. had clumsily re-energized something long thought to be dormant.

In fact, the Shiite-Sunni divide in Iraq has been a fact in Iraq that has never gone away. Facts, so the expression goes, are stubborn things. Thirteen-hundred-year-old facts are especially stubborn things.

The Iranians never lost time in aiding various Shiite militia groups in the south, supporting the targeting of Sunnis and especially U.S. troops. But were the Iranians the only foreigners interfering in Iraq's domestic affairs? In fact, aid from various extremist Sunni causes also poured in, albeit without any known governmental support from abroad but certainly with considerable foreign fighter assistance.

Among the many accomplishments of U.S. troops of recent years, efforts to interdict these support networks rank high. These groups, however, have persisted in targeting Shiites wherever they can find them (religious festivals continue to be a favorite) and have also continued to come after instruments of Iraq's Shiite-led government.

The Sunni Arab world never fully adjusted to the flipping of Sunni-led Iraq (a reality that had spanned centuries under the British and the Ottomans) to majority-rule Shiite. It was felt to be a huge loss to the Sunni states, especially to those with restive Shiites in their midst.

For many Arab Sunnis throughout the Middle East, Iraq's new order was all a big mistake caused by naïve Americans. The blunder was on display as the explanation for the infamous Sunni insurgency sparked by the disbanding of the (largely Sunni) army and coupled with a process known as "de-Baathification." Indeed, one of the only narratives that the Sunnis and Shiite agree on in Iraq is that "de-Baathification," the banning of Saddam Hussein-era cronies from positions in the new Iraq, meant "de-Sunnification," because the effect was much more felt within the Sunni community.

The departure of U.S. troops is, no doubt, a new twist in the no-longer-riveting Iraq drama that many Americans have turned off and gone to bed. The decision by the Iraqis -- both Sunni and Shiite -- to end the presence of U.S. troops will be a test of what kind of Iraq will emerge.

Will the Shiites continue to ally with the Kurds but bring Sunnis into important positions? Or will those Shiites adopt a more winner-take-all approach that ignores Sunni interests? The right instincts in that country do not always come naturally, and a helping hand from the U.S. will be very much needed.

But if the United States, embarking on an election year, turns Iraq into more grist for our winner-take-all elections, a kind of political equivalent of total war, well, we will indeed have all lost Iraq.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Hill.

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