Bing West, Marine infantry officer and Vietnam combat veteran, was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. A best-selling military author with extensive on-the-ground experience reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. West is collaborating with former USCENTCOM commander, Gen. James N. Mattis, USMC (ret.), to write a book on leadership and strategy. Mr. West briefed the Middle East Forum in a conference call on January 23, 2014.
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US forces twice fought to oust al-Qaeda insurgents from Anbar before securing the province in 2008. But after the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 and their replacement by the ineffective Iraqi army, the key city of Fallujah fell yet again, this time to the al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And while the ISIL has far fewer mujahedin than those fighting the US a decade ago, the largely Sunni population's dislike of al-Qaeda has been aptly matched by resentment of the sectarian Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. It has therefore used al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the central government, and has vehemently opposed the involvement of the Iraqi army in the province.
While al-Qaeda's resurgence in Fallujah poses no direct threat to the United States, the ISIL's pronounced goal of forming an Islamic caliphate in west Anbar and east Syria contains the seeds of regional instability. This was starkly illustrated by the warm reception given to the Islamist cleric Abdullah Janabi, former emir of the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Fallujah and a vocal proponent of al-Qaeda attacks on US and Iraqi-government forces, who fled to Syria during the 2004 fighting. The fact that the returning cleric has drawn a crowd of 40,000 worshippers to Fallujah's central mosque demonstrates Islamism's potential ability to fill the power vacuum in Anbar.
This state of affairs places a degree of uncertainty over Maliki's chances of winning a third term in the April 2014 elections, and for Iraq's future more generally. Indeed, Iraq's divisiveness could lead to its disintegration into a loose federation of states - a highly destabilizing development whose adverse repercussions would reverberate way beyond the country's borders.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Associate Fellow with the Middle East Forum