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The US is embarking on its third Iraq war (the “Islamic State” war). Looking back, there are key political and religious similarities between the Islamic State war and the earlier Iraq wars: Gulf War I (“Desert Storm” in 1990-91) and Gulf War II (“Iraqi Freedom” in 2003). However, thanks to the shale boom in the US, there is also one major difference this time around.

All three wars were fought primarily in Iraq, although Desert Storm involved first liberating Kuwait and the Islamic State war implicates at least Syria. All three wars were precipitated by atrocities – the invasion of Kuwait, the attack on the World Trade Towers, and the beheading of two American journalists coupled with major civilian casualties. And all three wars involved large allied coalitions – 34 countries in Desert Storm, 49 countries in Iraqi Freedom and 40+ in Islamic State. As far as religion, in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, the US was allied against Iraq (led by Sunni Saddam Hussein), while in Islamic State, the US is allied with Iraq (now led by a Shiite) against a radical Sunni organization.

The religious point is made well in this article in Financial Times: “none of the terrorist plots in the US and Europe since 9/11 have been devised by Shia groups.”


This leads to a major dilemma for the US. Our long time Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia, is Sunni, yet 19 of the 20 World Trade Center hijackers were Saudi citizens. A potential Shia ally for the US would be Iran, but Iran is the nemesis of Saudi Arabia and because they are pursuing Nuclear Weapons, they are our antagonist. The Financial Times article attempts to bring some clarity to the impossibly complex. The Council on Foreign Relations provides even more background in The Sunni-Shia Divide, taking a much deeper dive on the Sunni/Shia history and current ramifications.

There is one major difference between this Iraq war and the first two: oil prices spiked during Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, but are falling during the Islamic State war. In Shale, Saudi Arabia and Islamic State Leave Oil Bulls Sweating on The Wall Street Journal blog, the author points out how shale is the main difference this time around. The US is importing only half the oil it was importing just 10 years ago. That huge reduction in oil demand, thanks to shale energy, more than offsets the current uncertainty in the Middle East.