As US Secretary of State John Kerry hurried to a helicopter at the end of a visit to Iraq last year, it was becoming clear that the Americans have lost control of a country they once wished to mold to their liking.
His departure on March 24, 2013 was the conclusion of a "surprise" visit meant to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Ten years prior, the US had stormed Baghdad, unleashing one of the 20th century's most brutal and longest conflicts. Since then, Iraq has not ceased to bleed.
Kerry offered nothing of value on that visit, save the same
predictable cliches of Iraq's supposedly successful democracy, as a testament to some imagined triumph of American values. But it was telling that a decade of war was not even enough to ensure an ordinary trip for the American diplomat. It was a "surprise" because no amount of coordination between the US embassy, then consisting of 16,000 staff, and the Iraqi government, could guarantee Kerry's safety.
Mostly Muslim Sunni tribesmen have been fed up with the political paradigm imposed by the Americans almost immediately upon their arrival which divided the country based on sectarian lines. The Sunni areas, in the center and west of the country, paid a terrible price for the US invasion that empowered political elites purported to speak on behalf of the Shi'ites. The latter, who were mostly predisposed by Iranian interests, began to slowly diversify their allegiance.
Initially, they played the game per US rules, serving as an iron fist against those who dared resist the occupation. But as years passed, the likes of current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, found Iran a more stable ally that suited sect, political and economic interests. Thus, Iraq was ruled over by a strange, albeit undeclared troika in which the US and Iran had great political leverage where the Shi'ite-dominated government cleverly attempted to find balance, and survive.
Of course, a country the size of Iraq and with its history doesn't easily descend into sectarian madness on its own. But as Shi'ite and Sunni politicians and intellectuals who refused to adhere to the prevailing intolerant political archetype were long sidelined - killed, imprisoned, deported and simply had no space in today's Iraq - national identity was overtaken by that of sect, tribe, religion and race.
Currently, the staff of the US embassy stands at 5,100, but American companies are abandoning their investments in the south, where the vast majority of the country's oil exists. It is in the south that al-Maliki has the upper hand.
He, of course, doesn't speak on behalf of all Shi'ites, and is extremely intolerant of dissidents. In 2008, he fought a brutal war to seize control of Basra from Shi'ite militias who challenged his rule. Later, he struck the Mehdi Army of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in a Baghdad suburb. He won in both instances, but at a terrible toll. His Shi'ite rivals would be glad to see him go.
Maliki's most brutal battles however have been reserved for dissenting Sunnis. His government, as has become the habit of most Arab dictators, claims to have been fighting terrorism since day one.
While militant Sunni groups, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, have indeed taken advantage of the chaos to promote their own ideology, Iraq's Sunnis have suffered humiliation of many folds throughout the years long before al-Qaeda was introduced to Iraq courtesy of the US invasion.
Iraq's Sunni tribes, despite every attempt at negotiating a dignified formulation to help millions of people escape the inferno of war, were dismissed and humiliated. The likes of former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld were notorious for targeting Sunni tribes or any community that in any way supported or tolerated the resistance.
When the last US military column snaked out of Iraq into Kuwait in December 2011, it was leaving Iraq with the worst possible scenario: a sectarian central government that was beyond corrupt, plus many ruthless parties vying for power or revenge.
Nonetheless, Iraq is still very important to the Americans. While a failed military experiment, it is still rich in oil and natural gas. Moreover, Iraq is getting richer, the draft of the Iraqi budget for 2014 "anticipates average exports of 3.4m barrels/day (b/d), up 1m b/d from the previous year," according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. "Radical shifts are certainly on the horizon," reported Forbes on the future of the oil market.
Iraq's prospective oil production potential "dwarfs everything else", reported Canada's Globe and Mail, citing Henry Groppe, a respected oil and gas analyst. "It's the thing that everybody ought to be watching and following as closely as possible," he said.
Drawing its conclusions for the 2012 Iraq Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency reported that Iraq could be "reaching output in excess of 9 mb/d by 2020", which "would equal the highest sustained growth in the history of the global oil industry".
And many are indeed watching. Kerry and the US administration are hardly fond of Maliki, seeing him as too close to Tehran to be trusted. But he is Iraq's strongest man commanding about 930,000 security personnel "spread across the army, police force and intelligence services," according to the BBC, and that for the Americans must count for something.
However, Iraq's riches cannot be easily obtained. Sure, the country's strong parties are comforted by the fact that the army crackdown on Sunni tribes, al-Qaeda affiliated militias and other groups in Anbar and elsewhere is happening outside the country's main oil field. But they shouldn't discount just how quickly civil wars spiral out of control. The death toll in 2013 was alarmingly high, over 8,000, mostly civilians, according to the UN. It is the highest since 2008.
Iraq's "bad years" seem to be making a comeback. This time the US has little leverage over Iraq to control the events from afar. "This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis," Kerry said in recent comments during a visit to Jerusalem. Indeed, with little military and diplomatic presence, the US can do very little. In fact, they have done enough.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story" (Pluto Press, London).