The complex conflict in Iraq is intensifying into near-civil war, with efforts increasing to draw the United States back in.
The sources of internal warfare lie deep in the country’s history and turn basically on its diverse population of Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Jews and other sects. From independence in 1932 until the U.S. invasion in 2003, Sunnis ruled over a sometimes uneasy collection of elements, using brutal methods on occasion under President Saddam Hussein to retain their position as a minority on top of the heap.
The Americans removed Mr. Hussein and the Sunnis and, based on the Shiites’ majority in the population, put the Shiites in charge through elections. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki did not have the sense to include Sunnis in his government, and they have now rebelled. The other element now in the Iraqi political-military equation is violent, religiously conservative, militantly Islamist al-Qaida.
The irony is that, although President George W. Bush used a fictional al-Qaida presence in Iraq as one of the bases for the 2003 American invasion, the militant Islamist group is now one of the active participants in the current conflict. They have profited from Mr. Maliki’s non-inclusion of Sunnis in government and from the war in bordering Syria to deal themselves back into the Iraq scene. The governments of both Saddam Hussein and Syrian President Bashar Assad and his father had firmly blocked any al-Qaida involvement in their countries for many years.
At the moment, it is a three-cornered battle for control of Iraq’s government. (The Kurds have firm control of their part of the country, the north.) The other three parties are the basically Shiite government of Mr. Maliki, increasingly radical Islamist Sunni militias that include Iraqi and foreign elements, and more traditional Sunnis who the Americans were able to buy at one time to fight the radical Sunnis.
The United States is increasing its arms sales to the Maliki government to help it resist al-Qaida and its other enemies. The more traditional Sunnis are roughly allied with the Shiite government in fighting the more radical Sunnis, although this alliance may not last.
So far President Barack Obama has resisted providing more substantial military aid, including troops, to try to save Mr. Maliki’s regime, a position reiterated recently by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. That position is correct, based on the complexity of the situation in Iraq, America’s higher priorities and the need for the Iraqis to work out their own destiny.