A conflict between Iranian proxies and the United States will tear at Iraq’s fragile governing structures, creating a power vacuum for the Islamic State to exploit. Iraq already has only a caretaker government. The prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned in November and has been staying on pending his replacement. The country’s governance depends on achieving a precarious balance among different ethnic, tribal and religious constituencies. When those blocs are forced to take sides between the United States and Iran, the balance becomes all but unattainable and Iraq’s viability as a state is jeopardized. Add to that the harm to counterterrorism operations brought about by the “pause” in coalition assistance, and you have a combustible mix.
Third, and perhaps worst of all, General Suleimani’s death portends yet more sectarianism in Iraq. The parliamentary vote on Jan. 5 to expel American troops passed on the strength of votes from Shiite lawmakers; members of Parliament representing Iraq’s other main factions, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs, abstained.
Extremist groups thrive on this kind of division. Early last decade, the openly sectarian policies of Iraq’s prime minister at the time, Nuri al-Maliki, created a wave of communal violence. Sunni Arabs looked for protection anywhere they could find it, and the Islamic State was quick to exploit that need. Having built support that way before, the Islamic State will not hesitate to do so again, given the opportunity.
Moreover, the Iranian response to General Suleimani’s killing is likely to include an escalation in its conflict with Saudi Arabia, which is framed as a battle between Sunnis and Shiites. Ratcheting up these tensions will create still more openings for Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State.
Like all terrorist groups, the Islamic State draws fuel from chaos and division. The killing of General Suleimani promises much of both to come. The Islamic State still has deep pockets, affiliates around the world, and a knack for recruitment. General Suleimani’s death will have its leaders rubbing their hands in anticipation.
The damage is done. Without a major cooling of tensions, a jihadist resurgence might now be all but inevitable.
Ali H. Soufan (@Ali_H_Soufan) is a former F.B.I. special agent and the author, most recently, of “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State.”
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