“Over the past several years, as American influence in Iraq has waned, Iran’s influence has grown.”

Who’s to blame for the ongoing violence in the Middle East? If you listen to Iran, it’s primarily America’s fault. Iran’s Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has claimed that the United States is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State and instability across the Middle East, even implying that the United States had directly armed terrorist groups. The comments come in response to President Trump’s statements last week after the terrorist attacks in Tehran, when he noted that Iran had fallen victim to the terrorism that they themselves promote.

Untangling who bears the most responsibility for the growth of terrorist groups and instability across the Middle East and Central Asia is difficult. It does seem that the United States contributed to the overall instability in the region when it invaded Iraq. Saddam Hussein, for all his horrendous faults, cracked down on terrorism and extremist Sunni groups. He also kept the sectarian tensions “in control,” primarily by subjugating minority groups, often with brutal violence.

When the United States invaded, it created a power vacuum and allowed centuries-old sectarian tensions between the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds to boil over. Most extremist Islamic groups are Sunni, while Iran and Iraq are predominately Shia. Many of the ongoing conflicts across the region stem from the Sunni-Shia divide. (The Kurds are primarily Sunni but enjoy their own ethnic identity and are largely autonomous within Iraq.)


The Rise and Fall of the “Sons of Iraq”

The United States was able to bring sectarian violence in the Sunni Triangle under control by training, arming, and promoting the Sunni “Sons of Iraq.” This militia group instilled relative stability in the so-called “Sunni Triangle.” However, Iranian-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki undid the progress made with the Sons of Iraq by refusing to integrate them into the regular military and essentially banning Sunni militias altogether.

Some of the “sons” laid down their arms. Some joined the Islamic State, seeing the Shia-controlled Iraqi government as an increasing threat. And when the Islamic State launched its surprise attack on the Sunni triangle, there were no moderate Sunni militias to oppose them. The Shia-dominated army, meanwhile, tucked tail and ran, not willing to put their lives on the line for Sunni Iraqis.

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