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5 Ways Middle East Changed Since U.S. Entered Iraq 20 Years Ago

A marine covered a statue of Saddam Hussein with Tim McLaughlin’s American flag in Baghdad in 2003. (Photo: Jerome Delay/Associated Press)
A marine covered a statue of Saddam Hussein with Tim McLaughlin’s American flag in Baghdad in 2003. (Photo: Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

1. Iran's Growth

Following the toppling of Saddam Hussein by American forces, the Islamic Republic of Iran has significantly grown its influence in the region but more specifically in Baghdad, supporting various local Shiite terrorist groups and using the country to transport military aid to its proxies throughout the Middle East. After the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini's takeover, Saddam Hussein invaded the country, hoping to overthrow the newly created Islamic Republic and prevent Khomeini's revolution from spreading throughout the Middle East. From 1980 to 1988, Iraq and Iran were engaged in one of the bloodiest wars in the Middle East, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians and the destruction of both countries. Since Saddam's death, the mullahs in Iran have not feared any Arab country in the region, exporting the Islamic revolution against countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain, which relied on Hussein's regime as a barrier against Iran. With the Iraqi dictator overthrown, Iran has wasted no time building up its nuclear program, enriching uranium material to weapon grade while receiving millions of dollars in economic relief thanks to the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated under the Obama administration.

2. Decline of the Palestinian Authority

The end of Hussein’s rule also meant the end of support for the PLO, now the Palestinian Authority (PA), which it received from Baghdad, marking a significant change in the power balance among secular and Islamic Palestinian factions. During Saddam's reign, Yasser Arafat and his PLO cohorts received their primary support from Baghdad, given that the Palestinian terrorist organization allied with Saddam in his invasion of Kuwait. Both Arafat and Hussein shared a common interest in seeking to wipe out the Jewish state of Israel from the face of the map and pressured Arab states to join in such efforts. With Arafat's passing and the PLO's transformation into the PA, secular Palestinian governance has waned in the West Bank, given that Baghdad is no longer its primary provider. Today, Palestinian Islamic terrorist groups like Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have become more popular among Palestinians, overpowering the PA and increasing in strength thanks to the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

3. Saudi Arabia's Rise to Power

Following the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of one of the most influential Arab regimes in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has grown to fill the vacuum left behind by Saddam Hussein's death, increasing its economic and military power. While Iraq's parliament has friendly relations with Riyadh, the former is no longer one of the most influential Arab states given the divide between different Sunni and Shiite Islamic terrorist groups that govern various parts of the country. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Hussein placed his forces on the border with Saudi Arabia, prompting the Saudi monarchy to rethink its defensive capabilities against enemies like Iraq. In the past several years, the Kingdom has managed to defend against radical Islamic terrorist groups like the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen and send its forces to protect the Arab monarchy in Bahrain. Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi government has enacted economic and social reforms to turn Riyadh into a wealthy and prosperous Arab state that can act as a model for others to follow. Since Hussein's death, Saudi Arabia has also increased its oil production in the international economy, resulting in countries like the U.S., Europe, and Asia relying on the Kingdom for energy in exchange for military defense against Iran and its terror proxies.

4. Growing Disinterest in the Middle East

Before the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Baathist regime, the Middle East was one of the most pivotal arenas in international politics, with the Soviet Union and the U.S. supporting pro-Soviet and pro-American regimes to deter each other's influence. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Iraq's invasion of Iran, the Gulf War of 1991, the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the overthrow of Saddam's regime, the U.S. saw it their mission to weed out Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and to defend their interests. Today, that stance has significantly changed, with America focusing on China and Russia's military aggression in Asia and Eastern Europe. With America retreating from countries like Afghanistan and ignoring Gulf State allies like Saudi Arabia, the Chinese government has begun to fill in the vacuum left behind by the U.S., brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic, severely hurting America's influence in the Middle East. With calls by American officials to divert funding of U.S. forces in different parts of the Middle East, the Islamic Republic and terrorist cells like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite groups have grown in power, attacking American forces in Syria and Iraq. As a result of America's growing disinterest in the Middle East, allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia have broken down relations with the U.S., relying on themselves to defend against Iran and other Islamic terrorist groups.

5. Israel-Arab Relations

Since Saddam Hussein's death, Arab countries like Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Morocco have all normalized relations with the Jewish state of Israel, marking a new chapter in Middle East history. During the reign of the Iraqi Baathist President, Baghdad led the charge in calling for the destruction of the Jewish state, supporting terrorism against the Jewish people through the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) by providing funding, arms, and a safe haven for Yasser Arafat and his supporters. During the 1991 Gulf War, in an attempt to cripple the U.S. coalition forces, Saddam launched 88 Scuds missiles against Israel, hoping that the Jewish state would retaliate against him, fracturing the coalition of Arab states that the U.S. put together to expel the Iraqi dictator from Kuwait. Today, however, Israel and its Arab allies share economic and military cooperation, growing each other's economies and providing military and intelligence support against the growing threat of radical Islamic terrorism sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran. With Saddam gone, however, the new Iraqi government has not supported Israel's right to exist, with government officials passing laws banning normalization and punishing those who do call for friendly relations with the Jewish state.

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