Fueled by Syria war, al-Qaida bursts back to life in Iraq
BAGHDAD — Al-Qaida gunmen seeking to form a radical Islamic state out of the chaos of Syria's civil war are fighting hard to reconquer the province they once controlled in neighboring Iraq, stirring fears the conflict is exporting ever more instability.
Exploiting local grievances against Baghdad's rule and buoyed by al-Qaida gains in Syria, the fighters have taken effective control of Anbar's two main cities for the first time since U.S. occupation troops defeated them in 2006-07.
Their advance is ringing alarm bells in Washington: The United States has pledged to help Baghdad quell the militant surge in Anbar — although not with troops — to stabilize a province that had the heaviest fighting of the U.S. occupation.
Washington announced it is speeding up deliveries of military equipment to help Baghdad fight the gunmen.
“We're working closely with the Iraqis to develop a holistic strategy to isolate the al-Qaida-affiliated groups, and we have seen some early successes in Ramadi,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “This situation remains fluid, and it's too early to tell or make conclusions about it. But we're accelerating our foreign military sales deliveries.”
As part of that effort, the United States is looking to provide additional shipments of Hellfire missiles to Iraq as early as this spring, Carney said, as well 10 ScanEagle surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles in upcoming weeks and 48 Raven surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles later this year to help Iraq track insurgent groups.
The United States delivered three Bell IA-407 helicopters to Iraq in December, bringing total helicopter sales and deliveries to the country to 30, Carney said.
Al-Qaida's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has a tough potential foe in Anbar's well-armed tribes, fellow Sunnis ill-disposed to ceding power to al-Qaida even if they share the splinter group's hostility to the Shiite-led central government.
And the group's goal of establishing a hardline Islamic state reaching into Syria is regarded by many as far-fetched.
But its high-profile push into Ramadi and Fallujah illustrates the dangers of conflict spreading from Syria's three-year-old conflict, which is in part a proxy war between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite rival Iran, analysts say.