Iraq is at risk of becoming embroiled in a full civil war, with al-Qaida's influence over the country continuing to grow in the wake of the American troop pullout at the end of 2011 following the failure of negotiations to extend the U.S. presence, writes a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Selling Iraq Hellfire missiles, as the Obama administration has just done, is a poor substitute," writes Max Boot in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal. "It is positively destructive because it only further inflames the situation
and creates the impression that the Americans are siding with militant Shiites in a sectarian civil war."
On Friday, al-Qaida-linked militants held control of Fallujah and other nearby towns, fighting off efforts by Iraqi troops with air support to regain control, according to a witness.
"What Iraq needs now is what it saw in 2007 when Gen. David Petraeus orchestrated a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy," writes Boot. "Such a strategy has many facets, but one of the most important is a political line of operations, which in this case means fostering reconciliation between the prime minister and tribal leaders of Anbar."
Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday, however, that U.S. troops won't be sent back
into Iraq to help regain control of Fallujah, which took a deadly toll on American forces there during two assaults that eventually took back the city.
Fallujah became notorious among Americans when insurgents in 2004 killed four American security contractors and hung their burned bodies from a bridge. The town also was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War. Nearly 100 U.S. Marines were killed and hundreds wounded in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004.
In addition to Fallujah, another climactic battle in the war in Iraq, was in the provincial capital of Ramadi in 2006-07, a success sparked by an alliance with tribal fighters, writes Boot.
"By 2009, violence had fallen by more than 90 percent, creating an unexpected opportunity to build a stable, democratic and prosperous country in the heart of the Middle East," writes Boot.
But the opportunity has "been squandered," writes Boot, with battles raging for control of Anbar Province. Some tribal fighters support the government, while others support al-Qaida.
"Mosul, the major city of northern Iraq and a longtime hotbed of AQI activity, could be next to fall," said Boot. "If it does, AQI would gain effective control of the Sunni Triangle, an area north and west of Baghdad the size of New England."
But even if Mosul holds and the Iraqi army can regain control of Ramadi and Fallujah, the odds of civil war are growing every day as al-Qaida has "shown a disturbing but nevertheless impressive ability to bounce back from near-defeat," writes Boot, who says the nation's Sunni population is increasingly supporting al-Qaida.
"Today it enjoys freedom to maneuver because it has the backing of many Sunnis who now see it as a defender against a predatory, sectarian Shiite government," Boot says, insisting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has nobody to blame but himself.
As soon as U.S. troops left Iraq, al-Maliki started victimizing prominent Sunnis, said Boot, including sending security forces to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who escaped but was sentenced to death in absentia based on the testimony of his bodyguards.
And after another prominent Sunni parliamentarian, Ahmed al-Awlani, was arrested just a few days ago, al Qaeda fighters, dressed in black, paraded through the streets of Fallujah and Ramad, and Maliki reacted to protests over Awlani's detention by sending his security forces to close down a protest camp in Ramadi.
But not all is lost, says Boot. Some Anbar sheiks are cooperating with local police and siding with the government. However, Boot said, the country "is unlikely to recover the promise of 2009-11," at a time period he refers to as "a mini-golden age."
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