Iraq is the scene of increasing violence as the Shi’ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces two major challenges.
Analysts say the first challenge is the growing alienation of Iraq's minority Sunni population which considers itself marginalized from the political process and believes it is being treated as second-class citizens.
The second challenge is the presence of Sunni militants linked with al-Qaida who have intensified attacks on Iraqi security forces in the western province of Anbar - especially in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
More U.S. military aid
The Obama administration has responded to the Anbar fighting by accelerating military sales deliveries to the Iraqi government.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Iraq will get an additional shipment of air-to-ground Hellfire missiles and about 60 spy drones known as unmanned aerial vehicles - or UAVs.
“These UAVs will help the Iraqis track terrorist elements operating within the country. We also provided aerostat surveillance balloons to the government of Iraq in September of last year and delivered three additional Bell IA-407 helicopters in December - just last month - bringing the total purchased by and delivered to Iraq to 30,” Carney said.
Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged continued support to the Iraqi government. But he said that will not involve sending U.S. troops.
In 2003 American forces toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and fought an eight-year war, costing the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. military personnel. The U.S. invaded Iraq arguing it had weapons of mass destruction, an assertion which turned out to be false.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni was head of U.S. Central Command (1997-2000) - responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East - several years before the invasion.
He said it is critically important that the current political and security situation in Iraq stabilizes.
“This requires investment in more than just security forces, but in their economic development, in better governance, more pressure on the government to be responsive to the needs of all their people, maybe a little more distribution of authority down to the local level too,” Zinni said.
Maliki 'part of problem'
Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to two U.S. presidents, Gerald Ford (1974-77) and George H.W. Bush (1989-93), said Prime Minister Maliki should bear some of the responsibility for the increase in sectarian violence.
“He definitely is part of the problem," he said. "It seems to me that what he is really trying to do is to solidify a Shia-led government structure in Iraq rather than to solve the Shia-Sunni problem in a way that allows Iraq a government which has a chance to work. I don’t think that al-Maliki has been particularly helpful here.”
Scowcroft said the presence in Anbar province of Sunni militants with ties to al-Qaida poses a major test for the Iraqi prime minister.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, believes al-Qaida’s presence is growing in Iraq.
“In the Sunni areas, as they have seen the al-Maliki regime tilt very heavily toward the Shia population, carry out the bidding of Iran, the arguments of the terrorists like al-Qaida and other radicals to the Sunni population, that they are not going to get anything out of this regime and they need to go back to where they were almost 10 years ago - has a lot of appeal,” he said.
More turmoil ahead
Looking ahead, many experts see more turmoil and instability for Iraq.
“If Maliki were really to try to construct a government which operates, or is seen to operate on behalf of all Iraqis, it’s still not too late to turn the process around," said Brent Scowcroft said. "But I think it’s pretty late. In addition, there is always the nascent problem with the Kurds in the northwest who are in danger, at any time, of trying to revolt and create an independent Kurdistan. So Iraq is a very, very hazardous place right now.”
Some analysts believe Iraq may slip into a civil war risking the partition of Iraq into three independent regions.
Ironically, in 2006, then Senator Joe Biden, now the U.S. vice president, advocated a version of partition along the Bosnian model, calling for the establishment of “three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad.”