The rapidly increasing violence in Iraq stemming from the growing threat of al-Qaida forces shows once again how limited our options are.
American troops cannot be sent to every hot spot, especially one with such a deep sectarian divide as Iraq, where a Sunni insurgency threatens the Shiite government. And ignoring the problem is equally wrong. The best answer is to work politically to re-establish stability.
The current situation is unacceptable. Al-Qaida fighters in Iraq have grown from a local Sunni insurgency into a capable military force calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The organization has taken back land in Anbar Province that Americans fought and died for.
Masked gunmen from ISIS have recaptured Fallujah and Ramadi, the first time they haven taken and held territory in Iraq since the pullout of U.S. troops. The images of the takeover recall the battles American soldiers and Marines fought for those cities.
Still worse is the prospect of radical Islamists flourishing in lawless areas of Iraq and Syria under the auspices of al-Qaida. Throw in the interests of Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia and this is a nasty brew that some experts warned against at the American troop withdrawal of 2011.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to quell the violence in his country. If anything, he has aggravated the situation by launching an aggressive campaign against Sunni political figures rather than attempting to build unity in the country.
His request to the Obama administration for weapons, including helicopters and other military aircraft, “so that we can secure our borders and protect our people,” was at first met with silence. Perhaps due to the huge amount of aid that has already been provided. Or because of the perception that al-Maliki’s mismanagement played a role in where the country currently stands.
Now the administration has stepped up delivery of Hellfire missiles and drones in an effort to deny al-Qaida a safe haven in Anbar Province. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently indicated the possibility he might go along with the transfer of Apache attack helicopters.
As is often the case in the Mideast, the United States has no good options. Secretary of State John Kerry has rightly ruled out the return of U.S. troops. Doing nothing will lead to a stronger al-Qaida. New weapons for Iraq’s government may help in the short term, but ultimately it’s up to the Iraqis to determine what kind of nation they want.
Al-Maliki is leading them down a road to a country fractured along Sunni-Shiite lines. He shows few signs of preparing for fair and democratic elections this spring.
Such free elections could lead to genuine power sharing and create a central government that can reduce tensions between Shiites and Sunnis.
Given the need to discourage al-Qaida from carrying out its deadly attacks on Americans, the United States must stay engaged in Iraq. Not with boots on the ground but with some military aid and pressure on al-Maliki to follow through on his earlier promises of democratic rule.