MANY Americans are surprised to see Fallujah back on the front pages of newspapers. How did things get so bad that the Iraqi government was compelled to call for American support in its battle against an al-Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria?
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 long ruled by an Allawite minority) is the mirror image of Iraq (a majority Shi'a country long ruled by a Sunni minority). 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 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and its marginalization of Iraq's Sunni minority — long-evident trends that the U.S. government overlooked in its rush to exit Iraq in the glow of success.
Since the complete withdrawal of American troops at the end of 2011, 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 the Iraqi government.
After more than two years of paying insufficient attention to the cauldron that was bubbling in Iraq, the U.S. government is now feeling the heat. But it is still unclear that Washington understands what must be done to solve the crisis.
Iraq needs arms and intelligence — which Secretary of State John Kerry has said we will provide — but it also needs a concerted political strategy to persuade the prime minister to change the course of Iraq's increasingly sectarian and divisive politics.