Air strike on ISIS positions. Sinjar, 13 November.

If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe for Iraq, the United States, the region, and the world. Continuing violence could lead toward greater chaos, and inflict greater suffering upon the Iraqi people.

A collapse of Iraq’s government and economy would further cripple a country already unable to meet its people’s needs. Iraq’s security forces could split along sectarian lines.

A humanitarian catastrophe could follow as more refugees are forced to relocate across the country and the region. Ethnic cleansing could escalate.

The Iraqi people could be subjected to another strongman who flexes the political and military muscle required to impose order amid anarchy. Freedoms could be lost.

Other countries in the region fear significant violence crossing the borders. Chaos in Iraq could lead those countries to intervene to protect their own interests, thereby perhaps sparking a broader regional war.

Turkey could send troops into northern Iraq to prevent Kurdistan from declaring independence. Iran could send in troops to restore stability in southern Iraq and perhaps gain control of oil fields.

The regional influence of Iran could rise at a time when that country is on a path to producing nuclear weapons.

Ambassadors from neighboring countries told us that they fear the distinct possibility of Sunni-Shia clashes across the Islamic world. Many expressed a fear of Shia insurrections (perhaps fomented by Iran) in Sunni-ruled states.

Such a broader sectarian conflict could open a Pandora’s box of problems, including the radicalization of populations, mass movements of populations, and regime changes, that might take decades to play out. 

If the instability in Iraq spreads to the other Gulf states, a drop in oil production and exports could lead to a sharp increase in the price of oil and thus could harm the global economy.

Terrorism could grow. As one Iraqi official told us, “Al-Qaeda is now a franchise in Iraq, like McDonald’s.” Left unchecked, al-Qaeda in Iraq could continue to incite violence between Sunnis and Shia.

A chaotic Iraq could provide a still stronger base of operations for terrorists who seek to act regionally or even globally. Al-Qaeda will portray any failure by the United States in Iraq as a significant victory that will be featured prominently as they recruit for their cause in the region and around the world. 

Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Osama bin Laden, has declared Iraq a focus for al-Qaeda: they will seek to expel the Americans and then spread “the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq.”

A senior European official told us that failure in Iraq could incite terrorist attacks within his country.

The global standing of the United States could suffer if Iraq descends further into chaos. Iraq is a major test of, and strain on, US military, diplomatic, and financial capacities.

Perceived failure there could diminish America’s credibility and influence in a region that is the center of the Islamic world and vital to the world’s energy supply. 

This loss would reduce America’s global influence at a time when pressing issues in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere demand our full attention and strong US leadership of international alliances.

The longer that US political and military resources are tied down in Iraq, the more the chances for American failure in Afghanistan increase.

Continued problems in Iraq could lead to greater polarization within the United States. Sixty-six percent of Americans disapprove of the government’s handling of the war, and more than 60 percent feel that there is no clear plan for moving forward.

The November elections were largely viewed as a referendum on the progress in Iraq. Arguments about continuing to provide security and assistance to Iraq will fall on deaf ears if Americans become disillusioned with the government that the United States invested so much to create. 

US foreign policy cannot be successfully sustained without the broad support of the American people.

Continued problems in Iraq could also lead to greater Iraqi opposition to the United States. Recent polling indicates that only 36 percent of Iraqis feel their country is heading in the right direction, and 79 percent of Iraqis have a “mostly negative” view of the influence that the United States has in their country. Sixty-one percent of Iraqis approve of attacks on US-led forces.

If Iraqis continue to perceive Americans as representing an occupying force, the United States could become its own worst enemy in a land it liberated from tyranny.

These and other predictions of dire consequences in Iraq and the region are by no means a certainty. Iraq has taken several positive steps since Saddam Hussein was overthrown: Iraqis restored full sovereignty, conducted open national elections, drafted a permanent constitution, ratified that constitution, and elected a new government pursuant to that constitution. 

Iraqis may become so sobered by the prospect of an unfolding civil war and intervention by their regional neighbours that they take the steps necessary to avert catastrophe. But at the moment, such a scenario seems implausible because the Iraqi people and their leaders have been slow to demonstrate the capacity or will to act.

Adapted from The Iraq Study Group Report (2006). Photograph courtesy of Domenico. Published under a Creative Commons License.