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Analysis: As US troops became mired in fighting an insurgency, Iran extended its influence.
After Saddam was executed in December 2006, Sunnis saw the U.S. and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government as killing off the last vestiges of Arab nationalism. Although Saddam was once a dependable ally of the West, by the 1990s he was among the few Arab leaders who defied the United States and European powers. In the Sunni view, America and its allies eradicated the idea of a glorious Arab past without offering any replacement for it — other than sectarianism.
In 2007 and 2008, Lebanese Sunnis felt besieged as they watched news from Iraq of Shiite death squads executing Sunnis and driving them out of Baghdad neighborhoods. At the same time, Hezbollah was trying to topple the Sunni-led Lebanese government by staging street protests and a massive sit-in that paralyzed downtown Beirut. In January 2007, as they confronted Hezbollah supporters during a nationwide strike, groups of Sunnis waved posters of Saddam and chanted his name in front of TV cameras.
It was a rich contradiction: American-allied Sunnis in Lebanon carrying posters of Saddam, a dictator the U.S. had spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives to depose. But it was also a declaration of war. Saddam, after all, killed hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Iraq. Many Lebanese Shiites have relatives in Iraq, and the two communities have had close ties for centuries. Lebanon’s political factions eventually compromised on a new government, but the underlying sectarian tensions are still in place, with everyone keeping a wary eye on Iraq.
As Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds argue over sharing power and the country’s oil wealth, violence is on the rise yet again. The latest elections produced a deadlocked parliament in Baghdad that has not been able to agree on a new government. Far from becoming a model of freedom and religious coexistence, Iraq remains a powder keg that could ignite sectarian conflict across the Middle East.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.