Marine training at Camp Pendleton. Photo by: Cpl. Orrin G. Farmer/USMC
Marine training at Camp Pendleton. Photo by: Cpl. Orrin G. Farmer/USMC

The sudden surge of sectarian fighting in Iraq that has Sunni extremists advancing on the capital city of Baghdad became a likely scenario when U.S. forces left the country, a UC San Diego political science professor said Friday.

“Anybody who studies the phenomenon of civil wars saw this coming years ago, in fact, predicted that Iraq was going to experience another civil war,” professor Barbara Walter told City News Service. “It was going to happen after the United States pulled out its military forces.”

UCSD professor Barbara Walter. Courtesy image.

The current fighting is not so much based on traditional hatreds between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, or Kurds who live in the northern half of the country, but more on a lack of power-sharing in the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Walter, with UCSD’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

The expert on civil wars around the world said the former presence of U.S. troops in Iraq discouraged the Sunnis from taking up arms to change the political dynamic in the Middle Eastern country. However, the Sunnis knew that they were going to be exploited over time, and weapons obtained during the fighting in neighboring Syria provided opportunity for a sustained attack, she said.

The U.S. invaded Iraq and toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, and remained for some eight years in an often-bitter struggle to impose some sort of peace.

A group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has seized control of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, along with Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and plan to continue into Baghdad. Iraqi security forces have provided only light resistance.

“This is really a bad situation,” Walter said. She said the rebels were probably not strong enough to take over Baghdad.

She said President Barack Obama and other world leaders have two options.

“You can basically throw up your hands and say let the Sunnis and Shiites fight it out until one side emerges victorious, and let them have power and oppress the other side and hope that brings relative peace,” Walter said. “Or, you can try to help negotiate a settlement that gives both groups a say in government and then try to set it up in a way that gives both sides the ability to enforce good behavior on each other.”

At a news conference today, Obama said he is studying a wide range of options for responding to the situation in Iraq, but ruled out sending U.S. military forces into combat. Among the reported options being considered are strikes by drone aircraft and increasing military aid.

“There’s no way the U.S. is going to put soldiers back in Iraq,” Walter said. “Regardless of what happens there, and regardless of whether the U.S. putting boots back on the ground would have a positive effect, there is no way we’re going back there.”

The biggest worry is that the fighting could lead to a regional conflict involving Iran and other countries in the area, she said.

The next concern is Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been fighting since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to Walter. A similar scenario is very possible after the U.S. military completes its withdrawal, she said.

— City News Service