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In Trying to End One Iraq War, Did Obama Restart Another?

It is surely no coincidence that on Sunday an Iraqi court sentenced to death Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, and on the same day Sunni militants unleashed a series of attacks across Iraq, many of them aimed at Shiites, which killed some 100 people. Not that the bombings were planned in response to Hashemi’s sentencing in absentia–such coordinated strikes have to be arranged well in advance. But the attacks are symptomatic of how Iraq is starting to unravel: Prime Minister Maliki is seen as a Shiite militant who is persecuting Sunnis and Sunni extremists are responding with their trademark terrorist attacks.

It is quite possible that Hashemi is guilty of the killings attributed to him–but then similar charges could be lodged against many senior Shiite political figures. Too many Iraqi politicos to count have blood on their hands from the dark days of Iraq’s civil war, which finally petered out in 2008–at least temporarily. The fact that the courts, which are widely viewed as beholden to Maliki and not in any credible way independent, have gone after Hashemi is widely seem as a political vendetta–not as justice being done. The evidence against Hashemi, moreover, appears to have come from the torture of his bodyguards.

All of this is deeply disturbing because it threatens to throw off the delicate balance that Iraqi politics achieved after the success of the surge. By 2009 Al Qaeda in Iraq had been effectively defeated and Iraq had an excellent chance to emerge as an enduring democracy. Now that chance is being squandered because of Maliki’s short-sightedness–and because the Obama administration has totally given up trying to play any meaningful role in Iraq’s future. Not only do we not have any more troops in Iraq; we don’t even have an ambassador.

Iraq is only mentioned by the president in the context of “I ended the war.” On the contrary, it appears more accurate to say that Obama, with his failure to renew the mandate of U.S. troops, may have restarted a war that had been effectively ended after the sacrifice of the lives of 4,486 U.S. service personnel. Voters may not care now, but if the situation continues to worsen it will be a major blot on Obama’s historical legacy, something that he appears not to realize at the moment. More significantly, it will be a dangerous blow against U.S. interests in the Middle East.