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Dunsmore: New Conflict in Iraq

Falluja and Ramadi are two Iraqi cities in the province of Anbar where more than 1300 U.S. troops were killed between 2004 and 2006 while fighting Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaida. With significant help from tribal fighters from the area, the Americans were successful.

But in a new uprising against the current Iraqi government, al-Qaida linked gunmen largely took over both cities. The Iraqi military has attacked with aircraft and artillery. But in Falluja no more than 2000 insurgents have been effectively holding a city of 300,000 hostage and virtually daring the government forces to over-react.

Sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Sunni Muslims and the Shiite led central government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki have resumed since American forces departed Iraq two years ago. That’s because Malaki’s Shia government has made only feeble efforts at power sharing with the Sunni minority – stirring old resentments and resulting in more frequent tit-for-tat bombings in which hundreds of Sunnis and Shias have been killed. It’s in this atmosphere that Al Qaidi in Iraq has been reborn.

And this is where things start to get even more complicated. While nearly all Iraqis in Anbar province are Sunni - and the insurgents are also Sunni - the tribal leaders of Anbar want no part of al Qaida - as they didn’t a decade ago when they fought with Americans to defeat the then al-Qaida in Iraq.

Yet times have changed and the new version of al Qaida emerges as Sunni and Shias are in conflict throughout the entire Middle East. Their dispute, which dates from the 7th century over who should succeed the Prophet Mohammed, is now between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia over who will dominate the Middle East. The new al Qaida is trying to exploit that struggle for its own purposes, starting with its now leading role in the civil war in Syria. It is currently using its base in Iraq’s Anbar province, which shares a long, open border with Syria, as a gateway for Iraqi insurgents to join the fight to overthrow the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.

Some analysts believe the grand strategy of this new al Qaida in Iraq and Syria is to establish a permanent presence in a substantial portion of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This is not imminent - but it’s a potential threat that cannot be ignored.

Senate Republicans are blaming President Obama for this latest Middle East turmoil - for having removed all U.S. troops from Iraq. That seems to ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of American troops, with tens of thousands killed and wounded at a cost of at least a trillion dollars, did not pacify nor democratize Iraq.

President Obama recently approved sending Apache helicopters to Iraq, but Senate Democrats blocked that - which leaves diplomacy the remaining option. Interestingly, Russia and Iran could become willing partners, as they too would be threatened by an Islamic extremist de facto state, right in the center of the Middle East. Stay tuned.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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