Many Americans are surprised to see Fallujah back on the front pages of newspapers.
Scores of U.S. soldiers died in the fight against Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq's western Anbar province during the U.S.-led invasion that began in 2003.
Today, an al-Qaida-affiliated Sunni insurgent group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has retaken much of the area, and the United States has promised to send support, but not troops.
How did things get so bad that the Iraqi government was compelled to call for U.S. support?
This crescendo of violence is the culmination of two well-established trajectories.
The first trajectory is the worsening violence in Syria and the way in which the unrest has bled into neighboring states. While Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have borne the bulk of Syria's refugees, Iraq has suffered greatly under the weight of Syria's oozing sectarianism.
In many ways, Syria — a Sunni majority country ruled by an Alawite minority — is the mirror image of what Iraq used to be under Saddam Hussein — a majority Shiite country ruled by a Sunni minority, led by Saddam's Ba'ath Party. Today, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki leads a Shiite-controlled government, and as a result some Sunnis feel marginalized.
Iraq had only begun to heal from its sectarian war when the venom of Syria's conflict began to permeate its politics.
Realities on the ground took a turn for the worse with al-Qaida affiliates in Syria declaring their ambition to establish a Sunni Islamist state in the territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Over the past year, militant relationships barely cold from Iraq's sectarian fury were rekindled as insurgents made inroads into Anbar province, sending suicide bombers into Iraq much as Syria did during Iraq's own war.
The second trajectory is the growing authoritarianism of the government of al-Maliki and its marginalization of Iraq's Sunni minority — trends that were evident even before the last U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011. Since the U.S. withdrawal, al-Maliki has become increasingly brazen in his efforts to remove Sunni political leaders from power. He has targeted senior Sunni figures for arrest, forced out popular Sunnis from posts of responsibility in his government, and reneged on pledges to integrate Sunnis into government institutions.
Now, the convergence of these two trends — the worsening situation in Syria and the heavy-handedness of the Iraqi government — has produced a dire situation in Anbar province: Al-Qaida-affiliated militants incubated in the Syrian mayhem have found common cause with Iraqi Sunnis who harbor real, and in many cases legitimate, grievances over their place in the new Iraq and their treatment by al-Maliki's government.
Al-Maliki has made clear his preference for a “majoritarian” democracy — one in which the Shiite majority enjoys the benefits of a democracy while minorities have little influence. This longing is understandable given the inefficiencies and frustrations inherent in leading an unwieldy coalition, but Iraq almost certainly will not be stable if major groups are excluded, particularly if those politics continue to be organized along sectarian or ethnic lines.
After more than two years of the bubbling cauldron in Iraq, the U.S. government is now feeling the heat. But it is still unclear what Washington can do to help resolve the crisis, or if it should get involved. The United States forfeited much of its leverage with the Iraqi government when it withdrew in 2011. But some argue that the current crisis could provide the United States with new avenues of influence: Make a more robust military and intelligence relationship contingent on political changes that promote inclusion.
“Provision of increased military support should be contingent on a true power-sharing agreement, one that respects the rights of all Iraqi citizens and brings to an end the vicious witch hunts against Sunni politicians,” argues Peter Mansoor, a retired colonel who assisted U.S. Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and now teaches at Ohio State. “Until he agrees to such arrangements, Prime Minister Maliki should be left to handle the situation in his country on his own.”
So far the U.S. response has been fairly muted. Secretary of State John Kerry declared, “This is their fight,” and ruled out the possibility of sending U.S. troops to help. But the administration did accelerate the delivery of 100 Hellfire missiles and 10 drones, and is lobbying Congress to permit the sale of a fleet of attack helicopters. Lawmakers have been reluctant to support the sale because of al-Maliki's backsliding on the path to more democratic rule.
James Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told “PBS NewsHour” that he disagreed with Kerry's stance, and he argued that the United States should focus on flushing out al-Qaida even if it meant going soft on al-Maliki. The eradication of al-Qaida in Iraq should be a national security priority for the United States, he argued.
“This is our fight,” Jeffrey said on PBS. “We fought there in 2004 and we fought there, in part, to drive al-Qaida out after they established a foothold. The Maliki government, for all of its problems, is still a government that's a quasi-ally of ours.”
Another vocal al-Maliki supporter is Douglas Ollivant, who served as Iraq director on the National Security Council in the Bush and Obama administrations and was among the military intellectuals advising Petraeus when he was in Iraq. Now affiliated with the New America Foundation research center, Ollivant argued that while al-Maliki isn't blameless, the greater threat is al-Qaida.
“Politicians make mistakes and miscalculate,” Ollivant wrote online for the journal Foreign Policy. “But the fact remains that a terrorist force is blowing up thousands of Iraqi citizens.”
This report includes material from McClatchy Newspapers.