The post-Saddam Hussein government that the United States set up in Iraq at the end of its 2003-2011 occupation is showing signs of coming apart.
The basic problem is ethnic and secular. Iraq is roughly 60 percent Shiite Muslim, 20 percent Sunni Muslim and 20 percent Kurd, with other minorities as well. The Sunnis had ruled from independence in 1932 until the U.S. invasion in 2003. Based on the idea that Iraq could become democratic and that U.S. policy tilted toward the Kurds (whom Saddam Hussein's Sunnis had persecuted), the United States set up a successor state during its eight years there. It included majority rule, which put the Shiites in charge based on their numbers, and a high level of Kurdish autonomy in the north of the country.
The authority of the government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, is now being threatened in Baghdad and across the country by attacks from Sunni militias, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaida. Sunni-originated violence has increased since December, including car bombs and suicide attacks. Prompting bitter memories, one assault came a week ago on the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the scene of shameful American assaults on Iraqi prisoners during the war, since turned over to the Iraq government. Hundreds of prisoners, some of whom had been apprehended by U.S. forces, escaped. Some were killed or recaptured.
The Maliki government also finds itself in the midst of a very troubled, heavily armed region beset by war. One disturbing development was a union announced in April between an Iraqi Sunni militia opposed to the government, the Islamic State of Iraq, and an important Syrian Sunni militia that the United States considers to be terrorist, the Nusra Front. In the meantime, to the annoyance of the United States, the Baghdad government continues to permit military supply flights from Iran to the Syrian government via Iraq.
The United States has few options other than to continue its $11 billion in military aid to Iraq, including tanks and jet aircraft, and hope that the Maliki government can hang on, preserving a semblance of order. It is by no means clear that either a change of regime or the breakup of the country into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish pieces can be avoided as the ultimate unhappy result of the U.S. intervention.