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How should the United States react to Al-Qaeda regaining influence in Iraq?

Question submitted by Tyler Malcolm, March 11, 2014

Answered by: David Palkki

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Recent gains by al-Qaeda's main offshoot in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), are dangerous and discouraging. ISIS control of Fallujah is particularly disheartening, given the U.S. blood spilled to liberate this city in 2004. ISIS occupation of cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi in western Iraq, and Raqqa in eastern Syria, are part and parcel of a plan to destroy the Iraqi state and to create an Islamic caliphate. Important U.S. interests in Iraqi stability and regional security are at stake.

The United States has taken significant steps to assist the Iraqis in their fight against ISIS. The Pentagon plans to lease six Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, which could arrive as soon as this summer, followed by sales of an additional 24 helicopters, which should arrive in Baghdad within the next three years. These armored helicopters will help the Iraqi military more effectively attack ISIS camps, though U.S. officials will need to ensure that Maliki's government does not use these helicopters against minority populations or political rivals.

The United States has also provided Iraq with Hellfire missiles and will soon deliver UAVs, which will help Iraq surveil its western region and stem the flow of terrorists between Syria and Iraq. U.S. officials have strongly encouraged, and must continue to pressure, the Iraqi government to address Sunni grievances that have provided ripe recruiting ground in Iraq for Sunni extremists. Still, American influence will be limited. Finally, it is important to note that al-Qaeda's central leadership publicly disowned ISIS in February 2014. As one leading scholar has argued, the United States can seek to exacerbate divisions between ISIS and other jihadi groups and to further delegitimize ISIS.