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Shadow of Iraq war looms large in region

From the streets of Cairo to the battlefields in Syria, the legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq still looms large in the Arab world, as regional power balances continue to shift 10 years on, according to analysts. The decision by US-led powers to oust Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein has had a direct impact on the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that have swept across the region in the past two years.

“The greatest lesson the Iraq war taught the Arab street was ‘don’t count on the West’ to solve your problems,” said Oraib Rintawi of the Amman-based al-Quds Centre of Political Studies. Suspicions over US intentions in the region, sparked by the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, have prompted political movements in the Arab world to distance themselves from the West and project themselves as home grown.

Opposition movements in post-Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt have begun to label ruling Islamists as “agents of the West.” “Once seen as enemies of the West, Islamists are being accused of carrying out Western agendas and the status quo,” Rintawi told dpa. “After the Iraq war, being associated with the US is as good as political suicide.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent Cairo visit his snubbed by opposition figures, even as he encouraged them to reconsider boycotting upcoming parliamentary elections. One of the biggest legacies of the invasion is a struggle between Sunni and Shiite powers seeking influence.

By ousting Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, Western powers removed the sole counterbalance to Shiite Iran, sparking Tehran’s battle for regional dominance with Saudi Arabia – a Sunni heavyweight. The rivalry has spawned proxy wars and political stand-offs stretching from Iraq to Lebanon.

“There is no question that the Iraq war not only bolstered Iran but regionalized tensions between Sunni and Shiite powers,” said Mustafa al-Sayyed, political science professor at Cairo University. The Saudi and Iranian post-Iraq war sparring for regional supremacy has given rise to a host of political realignments. Tehran and Riyadh bankroll and support proxy Sunni and Shiite militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq and currently in Syria.

“If Saddam had still been in power, many of these conflicts would never have occurred,” al-Sayyed told dpa. One of the greatest impacts of the war continues to be felt in the halls of power in Washington, London and Brussels, where decision-makers have been deterred from additional military interventions in the Arab world.

Analysts claim that the Iraq invasion and subsequent years of deadly sectarian unrest in the country have discouraged the West from military intervention in Syria, a move they say has unnecessarily extended the country’s two-year conflict. “Fears of a second Iraq have led to weak Western positions on Syria, and the Syrian regime has taken advantage of these fears,” said Nadim Shehadi, a fellow at the London-based Chattham House think-tank.

Growing influence of jihadist rebels in Syria and the sectarian nature of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has led many Western leaders to draw the “wrong parallels” with Iraq, according to Shehadi, discouraging the US and Europe from arming rebel forces. “Many Western leaders look at Syria and believe they are looking at another Iraq waiting to unravel,” Shehadi said. “Rather than learning the right lessons from the invasion and supporting home-grown opposition movements, they are allowing the conflict to spiral into chaos.”

Compounding the Syrian conflict is the role of neighbouring Iraq, now under the control of a Shiite-led government allied with Iran, which is a key supporter of al-Assad. The presence of a Tehran-friendly neighbour has proven a huge political asset for Damascus, extending a direct line of political and military support from Iran into Syria. “If the 2003 invasion had never occurred, al-Assad would have one less ally in the region,” Rintawi said. Yet, as the struggle for the future of several Arab states continues to be fought on the battlefields and in the streets, observers say the biggest lesson of the Iraq invasion is the limits of Western power in the region. “After 10 years,” Rintawi said, “the Arab world has learned that either with ballots or bullets, regime change can only be successful from within.”A

Taylor Luck, "Shadow of Iraq war looms large in region," Business recorder. 2013-03-14.