The underlying causes of the Iraqi civil war have hardly been resolved, even if the U.S. presence helped ensure a Shi’ite victory and the consolidation of the power of an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — who maintains tight control over the armed forces, apparently well aware of their centrality to the next phase of Iraq’s history. While the U.S. bought off the Sunni insurgency and reconstituted it as the “Awakening” to fight al-Qaeda on the U.S. payroll, Maliki has always viewed the armed Sunnis as a threat. His security forces have hounded the Awakening and other Sunni leadership figures, citing fears of a Baathist coup to keep Sunni challengers on the back foot. Maliki may turn even more authoritarian in the coming months, lest anybody get the idea that he can be challenged now that his American backers are gone. There’s plenty of scope for new outbreaks of civil warfare and potential secessionist breakaways of various provinces (not only the Kurds). And the fact that the U.S. is leaving behind an embassy with more personnel than an Army division also makes it a target for those wishing to strike at U.S. power — not least, Iran’s allies.
But the U.S. troops had long ago relinquished the role of policing Iraq’s domestic conflicts, and it has proven singularly incapable — even when it had 140,000 troops in the country — of persuading Maliki to do his bidding. Post-Saddam Iraq may not be pretty, but eight years later, it is what it is.