So named is the front page link to the CNN article, Iraqi battle for Mosul prompts fears of more sectarian violence.
If this were the only reason for a civil war, it might be sufficient. But such a civil war would tend to be contained within the the territories of contention. There is another issue, as inevitable as death itself, that will make it geopolitical in the large sense.
This is the advanced age and delicate health of Iraq’s senior cleric, Ali al-Sistani. Compared to Iran’s ample religious establishment, Iraq’s is relatively spare. Sistani is relatively progressive, what we would want an ayatollah to be if we had to have one. That Iraq has any independent religious establishment at all is due to his seniority. Sistani has been protective of Iraq as an independent political entity, a concern not shared by the infiltrative power brokers of Qom.
Sistani was treated for undescribed heart problems in 2004, sufficiently serious to require treatment in London. How long he will live is a very relevant question. When he passes, absorption of Iraq’s religious establishment by Qom will begin in earnest. The limited ability of the secular government to restrain the militias will vanish. Iran’s military presence, already overt, will expand. The south of Iraq will be conjoined with Iran, even at the expense of a greater unity.
There has been speculation that the incoming administration contemplates a greater U.S. military role in Iraq. Perhaps this speculation arises from the reappearance of some of the neoconservatives responsible for the 2003 invasion. I have no opinion as to what they are thinking. But a general question can be phrased for all military operations mounted with less than overwhelming force.
The question is whether the environment is “permissive.” For example, if an airstrike were contemplated against a target, the question would be whether the air defenses of the target could be sufficiently degraded to permit the airstrike to be carried out with acceptable losses.
The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities. Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would steamroller it.
Now, with the reprise of the neoconservatives, we can only watch and wonder.