Twenty five years ago the U.S. began Operation Desert Storm in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  Twelve years later the second Gulf War led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and toppled the government of Saddam Hussein.  Today Iraq is still in the process of attempting to maintain itself as a stable, self-governing nation.  This task has recently become more difficult as the Sunni extremist group ISIS has mounted a serious military offensive against the Shia led government of Iraq.  The regional roots and implications of this conflict are extensive and potentially disastrous to stability in this part of the world.  Join Active Minds as we examine the past, present, and potential future of this volatile area in crisis.

Key Lecture Points

  • Present-day Iraq has long been the site of ethnic and religious conflict as well as a battleground for the competing ambitions of foreign powers.  WWI introduced western powers to the region.  With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Britain established a mandate over the newly created nation of Iraq including a population split between ethnic Arabs and Kurds, as well religious Sunnis and Shia. After the fall of a British-installed monarchy in 1958, the Sunni-dominated Baathist Party maintained Iraqi unity via dictatorship, most notably that of Saddam Hussein.
  • In 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, causing international outrage.  The UN Security Council imposed sanctions and a deadline by which Iraq was to withdraw from Kuwait.  Hussein responded by annexing Kuwait and the UN authorized military action against Iraq.  During the First Gulf War the US led a coalition of 28 nations that forced Iraq out of Kuwait but stopped short of entering Baghdad and removing Hussein from power.  After the war Hussein was able to keep power by crushing all opposition, including uprisings by both Kurds and Shiites.
  • In 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled the Saddam Hussein regime.  Under the US occupation, the country descended into ethnic and religious conflict.  As the war wore on, it became increasingly clear to Americans that the situation in Iraq was more complicated than they expected.  Historically divided along ethnic and religious lines, Iraq emerged in the post-Saddam era as a society for which establishing law and order and reconciling political differences remained immensely challenging.
  • In February 2009, newly elected President Obama announced he would withdraw American combat troops by August 2010, followed by a complete withdrawal of all US forces by December 2011.   After the final US withdrawal, questions of the extent to which Iraq could sustain itself peacefully, without a US troop presence, intensified.
  • Today Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 US troop withdrawal.  In June 2014 the al-Qaeda breakaway group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched an offensive across Syria and Iraq.  Sunni militants, fresh from the Syrian civil war, captured wide swaths of land spanning Syria and northern and western Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.  ISIS has splintered Iraq into a Sunni-held northwest, Shiite-held south and the Kurdish autonomous region. Terming their quasi-state the caliphate, ISIS is imposing its strict interpretation of Shari’a law on the territory it controls.
  • The US, not wanting to return troops to Iraq, has limited options.  President Obama’s strategy to degrade IS includes airstrikes and the re-introduction of a limited number of US forces into Iraq as advisors and special operations teams.
  • ISIS has moved beyond a regional threat to an international threat.  As Western air strikes and Kurdish fighters have increased pressure on ISIS, taking back some ground, the militants have again seized the initiative by launching international terror attacks, such as the bombing of the Russian aircraft over Egypt, the Lebanon attacks and the Paris attacks.  Fears of more attacks continue in the West.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe what events led up to the First Gulf War.  How did it set the stage for the current crisis in Iraq?
  • How does the history of Sunni-Shiite rivalries in Iraq complicate the effort to create a self-sustaining government in today’s Iraq?
    What is ISIS and why is it a major threat not only to the region but to the rest of the world?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think the war in Iraq was worth the cost in lives and money?  Why? Why not?
  • Do you think the current US military involvement will continue to expand in Iraq?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Jon, Robertson. Iraq: A History. ONEWorld Publications, 2015. 336 pages.  The author describes the broad expanse of Iraq’s history, from its ancient empires to the aftermath of the American-led invasion and Iraq today.
    Click here to order
  • Meacham, Jon.  Destiny and Power.  Random House, 2015. 864 pages.  The author tells the life story of George H. W. Bush, drawing on the former President’s White House diaries, his wife’s diaries and private interviews.
    Click here to order
  • Atwan, Abdel Bari. Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate. University of California Press, 2015. 256 pages.  This book explores the origins and operations of the Islamic State—its leadership structure, as well as strategies and recruiting methods.
    Click here to order
  • Kamber, Michael and Dexter Fikins.  Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq.  University of Texas Press, 2013. 279 pages.  This visual history of America’s nine year war In Iraq includes eyewitness accounts and interviews with photojournalists who covered the war and explores the role of the media in the war.
    Click here to order