The rise of Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Iraq can be traced to America's invasion of the country more than a decade ago, as it left a power vacuum and unleashed sectarian bloodletting, experts said Friday.
With television footage of Sunni extremists sweeping across Iraq this week, critics of former president George W. Bush's decision to invade in 2003 said the onslaught offered yet more proof of the war's disastrous fallout.
Neoconservatives who backed Bush's decision touted the war as a way to build a model for democracy in the Middle East. Instead, it has fueled an explosive Sunni-Shiite divide that is still sending shockwaves through the region, experts said.
For University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, events in Iraq are "an indictment of the George W. Bush administration, which falsely said it was going into Iraq because of a connection between Al-Qaeda and Baghdad."
"There was none," said Cole, an outspoken opponent of the invasion.
But by occupying and "weakening" Iraq, the Bush administration ironically created conditions that allowed Al-Qaeda "to take and hold territory in our own time," he wrote.
Cole also blamed Iraq's troubles on the legacy of European imperial meddling from a century ago, sectarian-minded leaders in Baghdad and a US-trained Iraqi army that ran away from the militants.
The late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was long painted as an arch-enemy by the United States, but more than ten years since US-led forces toppled his regime, his era appears relatively stable and innocuous compared to the virulent threats now engulfing Iraq and causing alarm in Washington.
Saddam's fall opened the door to an emboldened Iran extending its reach across the region, a Shiite-led government that has alienated Sunnis and helped give birth to Al-Qaeda linked extremists now entrenched in Iraq and Syria, analysts said.
Other commentators blamed the Bush administration for the wholesale dismantling of Baghdad's entire government apparatus without building an alternative.
- Destroying the Iraqi state -
"When the Americans invaded in March 2003, they destroyed the Iraqi state -- its military, its bureaucracy, its police force and most everything else that might hold a country together," wrote journalist and author Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker.
"They spent the next nine years trying to build a state to replace the one they crushed."
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By the time US troops departed in 2011, there had been genuine progress but the Americans "were not finished with the job," Filkins wrote.
Obama wanted the American troops to come home, while Iraqi leaders "didn't particularly want them to stay," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had foreseen a fiasco from the outset.
"We warned long ago that the adventurism the Americans and the British started there would not end well," Lavrov said Thursday.
Without referring to Bush by name, Lavrov said the situation in Iraq has been "deteriorating at an exponential rate" ever since the Americans ousted Saddam.
But Republican hawks like Senator John McCain blame the current crisis on Obama.
McCain argues that a surge of US troops in 2007 helped rescue the war effort and accuses the White House of squandering those gains by pulling out American forces three years ago.
"We had it won. Thanks to the surge and thanks to general David Petraeus, we had it won," McCain told MSNBC television, referring to the former commander of US troops in Iraq.
"And then the decision was made by the Obama administration to not have a residual force in Iraq."
Obama's deputies insist the Iraqi government would not grant legal protections to US troops and so a deal to keep a smaller force there fell apart.
"There's plenty of room for finger-pointing for the debacle in Iraq. Let's not forget the disastrous decision to start the war in 2003 as the place to begin finger-pointing," Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA officer, told AFP.
For both supporters and opponents of the war, the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army on the battlefield in the face of fighters inspired by Al-Qaeda has come as a sobering jolt.
"The trouble is, as the events of this week show, what the Americans left behind was an Iraqi state that was not able to stand on its own," wrote Filkins.
"What we built is now coming apart. This is the real legacy of America's war in Iraq."