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What It's Like on the Ground in Iraq Today

In an interview, veteran journalist Jane Arraf says Syrian fighters are crossing the border at will and Anbar's deep sectarian divisions are growing in Baghdad.

Al-Qaeda's resurgence in Iraq's Anbar province has led Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to threaten an attack on Fallujah, which militants control. "This is seen as a fight to the death," says veteran journalist Jane Arraf, a correspondent for Christian Science Monitor and Al Jazeera. Arraf notes that Maliki, in advance of elections slated for April 30, is facing one of his deepest crises. While Maliki's Shiite-led government is struggling for its survival, many Sunnis "feel that they are in danger of being essentially eliminated from the political landscape," says Arraf.

What has Iraq been like since the U.S. troops left?

If you went there and traveled around Baghdad, unless you were in the immediate vicinity of a suicide bomb, it would look sort of normal to you; kind of depressing, but normal. Depressing because, for all the oil money that's poured into that country, you don't see a lot of results. It hasn't really trickled down. But it is a country that amazingly manages to survive. It is an incredibly resilient country. But it's certainly not what the United States envisioned when it toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

How would you describe Maliki's government?

If you discount Syria, where the Alawite majority is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, his is the only Shiite-led Arab government in the Middle East. That is absolutely historic: It's the first time in hundreds of years that that's happened. The essential problem is they still feel like they're in a fight for survival, and perhaps they are. That goes all the way from believing that the Arab Gulf countries are actively trying to destabilize the government to believing that the Sunni protests in Anbar and other Sunni provinces over the past year are really covers for al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda's main goal, they believe, is to come and topple their government. So almost every decision they make is based on fear that their government will not survive because it's Shia and because they're surrounded by hostile neighbors.

(Related: Iraq’s Best Hope for Peace Is Replacing Maliki)

How much is Maliki's government influenced by Iran?

People automatically assume because Iran is Shia that Maliki and his government are an arm or puppet of Iran. I don't think that's proven to be the case. They have tried to cobble an independent policy and an independent way forward, but they naturally do have very strong ties to Iran, and other countries as well.

Has the fighting in Syria affected sectarian conflict in Iraq?

When Syria started unraveling, the fear was that it would become a sectarian conflict. By that, what we mean is Syria essentially is a proxy war between Iran, which is a major power in the Middle East and Syria's biggest backer, and the rest of the region. So countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and some of the other Gulf states have seen Syria as a battleground where they, for the first time in centuries, have the potential of beating back Iran by toppling the Syrian government. On top of that, if you put in the influence of what has become a powerful and diffuse al Qaeda-linked organization—and we have to remember there are now hundreds of splinter groups fighting in Syria—it becomes very complicated.

When I first started talking to people fleeing Syria, [the sectarian conflict] wasn't nearly as bitter and entrenched as it is now. To be specific about that in the Iraqi case, even though the Iraqi government has closed the border with Syria—essentially sealed it off with concrete blocks—it's still very porous because they don't have full control of their own border. So fighters are going back and forth. That's one of the dynamics that we're seeing in Iraq: the influence of battle-hardened Syrian fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda coming back into Iraq.

(Read more: Why Al-Qaeda in Iraq Is Maliki’s Problem, Not America’s)

And how does this affect Anbar province?

Anbar is the biggest province in Iraq and probably one of the most difficult. It's very tribal, very conservative. Even Saddam Hussein had trouble appeasing the tribes. That was part of the problem when American forces went in. You'll probably remember an incident in 2003 where U.S. forces on a rooftop started opening fire on protesters in Fallujah. That was the spark that set the stage for a series of tragedies. The next one was the killing of U.S. contractors. It doesn't take much to ignite a community when there's such bad feeling, such suspicion, and when there's been bloodshed.

So Fallujah was fairly fertile territory, as was the rest of that province, for al-Qaeda to come in and say to people, "You have infidels here. They don't understand you. They're disrespecting your women. They're going to enslave you." Coupled with the security vacuum, that meant al-Qaeda was able to flourish with the help of some of the tribes. But the tribes turned against them; al-Qaeda overplayed its hand and tried to take over everything. And the tribes basically wanted what was in their own interest. So they rejected al-Qaeda and teamed up with U.S. forces for what was called the Awakening. Al-Qaeda was beaten back out of the cities, and then the Americans left. And al-Qaeda has come back in for a variety of reasons: One of them is that, again, there's fertile ground for discontent because the demands of Sunnis have been unrecognized by the Maliki government, and they see that as an indication that they will never be part of Iraq. So they are looking for alternatives, no matter how unpalatable.

What did you find when you were in Anbar province several weeks ago?

One of the significant developments over the past year is that parts of Iraq have been essentially partitioned. Fallujah and Ramadi are among them. The Iraqi army has cut off Anbar from Baghdad, which is only forty miles away, because of the fears by the Iraqi government and security forces that that's the source of a lot of suicide bombers and the materials for those explosions that go off almost every day in Baghdad. It's become very hard for Anbari residents to go back and forth. There are security checkpoints; they turn back a lot of people.

That's happened not just in Anbar, in Fallujah, but in a lot of the Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. On Fridays you can't get in or out of some of the Sunni neighborhoods because security forces are worried about the effect of protests after Friday prayers. It's a deep division that's been widening over the past year, pretty much unnoticed by the West. But it's part of what has contributed to Maliki going in and dismantling the Sunni protest camp in Fallujah, which was the trigger for al-Qaeda to come in and take over parts of Fallujah and Ramadi two weeks ago.

Apparently the tribes rebelled against al-Qaeda in Ramadi.

Some did. In Ramadi they seem to be joining forces sometimes with the Iraqi police, sometimes just with a compilation of tribes to fight al-Qaeda. Reports that I've heard say in these scattered battles they have managed to beat al-Qaeda back from large parts of Ramadi. They can't hold that forever. What we have to remember about al Qaeda and its new incarnation, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is that these are people who are well-funded, incredibly well-trained, and willing to do anything, including routinely blow themselves up. Those are hard things to combat even for a very effective security force, much less this coalition of tribes that has not been funded and has been essentially abandoned not just by the United States when it left, but by the Iraqi government.

What is likely to happen in Fallujah, where the Iraqi army is reportedly poised outside the city?

The army essentially was driven out of the city last year. In a deal with the tribes, the Iraqi government agreed to pull the army back. So security in Fallujah has been maintained by tribal security forces and local police. Now the army is poised at the outskirts of Anbar just outside of Fallujah waiting for the word from Maliki to go in and attack the city, which is occupied by many of the al-Qaeda forces.

If that happens, it would be by all accounts catastrophic. It's not something that Maliki wants to do, because he recognizes the dangers; you don't easily send in a deeply unpopular, not very skilled army into a community where there's hatred for the security forces. The reason for that hatred, the reason for the protests, is due in large part to those very security forces. They're the ones who round up Sunnis in sweeps; they have put them in jails; people have been executed in alarming numbers without fair trial.

Are the elections slated for April 30 linked to the troubles in Anbar?

A lot of people feel it's a political move by Maliki ahead of the elections to consolidate more power. It's hard to imagine that that would be the case. The stakes here are so high, and the consequences are so potentially disastrous. He is genuinely in a bind. It wasn't great timing that he sent security forces in to dismantle that protest camp in Fallujah two weeks ago. It certainly wasn't to his advantage to ignore the demands of the protestors and arrest major Sunni politicians rather than negotiating and offering political compromise. But compromise is not one of the hallmarks of Iraqi politics. Again, even in politics, this is seen as a fight to the death. For the Iraqi government, they believe they are struggling for their very survival. The Sunnis, on the other hand, a lot of them feel they are in danger of being eliminated from the political landscape. The stakes are very high.

Does the United States have a role to play in this?

It has an awkward role because the U.S. has been largely, according to most Iraqis, absent. The U.S. administration has made clear this was not their war; they would like to put it behind them. Unfortunately that's proving impossible. So when Secretary of State John Kerry says, "This is their fight," you can probably imagine how that resonates not just with Iraqis, but with Americans who fought and lost people in Fallujah and Anbar. No Iraqi wants American troops back, but what they do want is some support, some political help. They fear, in Fallujah and other places, that missiles and drones being sent to Iraq by the U.S. government are going to be used against them. One reason that the Iraqi security forces are still relatively weak is they lost a lot of their intelligence capability when the Americans left. The Americans took the technology and the expertise with them, and they had not been able to train the Iraqis to carry on that work. Now what they are doing is increasing their help in counterterrorism, so they are sharing more intelligence, they're helping with targeting, they're helping with surveillance. But that still does not replace the system that was in place when the Americans were there.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.