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  • Writer's pictureRed Line Producer

Episode 38. Iraq: What Went Wrong?

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For a number of years Iraq has been spiraling, with worsening insurgencies, sectarian violence and numerous regional players all treating Iraq like a political battleground. How did we get here though? What decisions and events brought Iraq to where it stands today, and what upcoming options are there for bettering or worsening the situation?



  • Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University

  • Former Chair of International Studies Section of the International Studies Association

  • Scholar and Diplomat with the Kurdistan Mission to the EU

  • Former advisor to PKK Vice President

  • Retired Four Star General

  • United States Special Operations Commander

  • Commander of United States Central Command


Part 1: Mission Accomplished (04:16)

  • James Lebovic sets up this piece with a breakdown of Iraqi political history over the past few decades, looking at Saddam Hussein's politics and party, and the invasion of Iraq in particular.

  • This also includes the key regions of Iraq and their religious and cultural divides, from the Kurds in the North in autonomous Kurdistan, through the Capital, Centre, West and South, and the Shi'ite groups in the West.

  • We track the history of the relations between the United States and Iraq, including the Iran-Iraq war and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the justifications for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  • We then dive into the consequences of US Military and nation building strategies in Iraq, including de-Baathification resulting in the gutting of Iraqi government officials and experts, the breakdown of the Iraqi military and the formation of new militia groups as a result, and the new Shi'ite controlled government that the United States supported and set up.

  • We also look at the situation in Iraq from Obama onwards in depth, looking at the role that the United States' hesitancy to get involved played in massively increasing Iranian influence in the region and the development of the coalition against ISIS.


Part 2: The Oasis (48:45)

  • Diyar Ameen takes us on a deep dive into the Kurds; a people and region of high concerns to neighbouring Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, and a key ally of the United States for decades. We look at their relations as well as their history, society, culture, religion, politics and military prowess.

  • Kurdistan has continued to be a much more peaceful, stable and economically prosperous region than much of the rest of Iraq - we look at the political decisions and cultural factors that has seen Kurdistan maintain this and in recent years, receive a great deal of foreign investment.

  • We look at the territorial and sovereignty threat that Kurdistan presents to all of its neighbours and why the US has worked so closely with them for so long.

  • In recent history, we evaluate the consequences of the events of October 2019, when President Trump ordered a US troop withdrawal from the Syrian-Turkish border, resulting in tens of thousands of Kurds fleeing and hundreds dying.

  • We close out with a look at the future prospects of US-Kurdish relations, and an independent Kurdistan.


Part 3: The March to the Mediterranean (1:09:36)

  • Joseph Votel takes us through the recent history in the region, including ISIS, the PMF, and Iran's influence through the region, as well as the current seeds of future insurgency that exist.

  • We track ISIS' rise, establishment of the Caliphate, the strategic and organisational differences between them and al-Qaeda, the international coalition response and their current state.

  • We look into the PMF in Iraq; what it is, what constitutes it, how it emerged, its work with the international coalition against ISIS, and the power it wields today.

  • We discuss the strength and likely continued existence of the Shia Crescent through from Iran, through Northern Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon, and how effective it is in allowing Tehran to exercise its power and connect it to the Mediterranean Sea.

  • Building on Diyar Ameen's discussion of Turkish-Kurdish relations in Part 2, we look at why Turkey is so militant against the Kurds and any regional Kurdish government, unlike in Iraq where the Kurds do have an autonomous region.

  • We also analyse Iraq's relations and involvement with other relevant regional and world powers; Saudi Arabia, Turkey Russia, India, China and the United States.


The Red Line's Iraq Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Iraq.


Planning to Fail: The US Wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan

James Lebovic

The Iran-Iraq War

Pierre Razoux

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

Kim Ghattas


The U.S. Army in the Iraq War: Volume 2, Surge and Withdrawal, 2007-2011.

Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College

Autonomy Impaired: Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State

Dylan O'Driscoll


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Andrus Asumets, Ronbo, Rauiri Kavanaugh, Roger Schonfield, and David Morisette.


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