WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama and his advisers are keeping a close watch on Iraq, where government forces are confronting al-Qaida-linked militants. Washington is sending surveillance drones and missiles and is urging Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and Sunni tribal leaders to unite against the militants. However, analysts think the U.S. has few options.
In Ramadi and Fallujah, in western Anbar province, Iraqi government troops face off against Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida. In the most serious threat to central authority since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the Sunni militants have taken over parts of both cities.
The current insurgency appears similar to what U.S. troops faced after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has urged tribal leaders in Anbar to expel the al-Qaida elements.
However, observers such as Brookings Institution national security analyst, Michael O'Hanlon warn that the violence could spiral out of control.
"If you go in brutally and you suppress one group in one neighborhood at one time, you may be simply stoking the resentments and angers of other groups of the same sectarian background. And so you generate new enemies even as you have neutralized or killed others," said O’Hanlon.
President Obama considers the withdrawal from Iraq among his major accomplishments, although the two countries failed to agree on keeping a residual U.S. military presence.
Obama has ruled out sending combat forces back to the country, but is sending air-to-ground missiles and surveillance drones.
Responding to renewed criticism on Iraq from Republican lawmakers, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that there's no reason to think that U.S. troops could have prevented sectarian conflict.
"There was sectarian conflict -- violent sectarian conflict -- in Iraq when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there. So the idea that this would not be happening if there were 10,000 troops in Iraq, I think, bears scrutiny," said Carney.
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman said that the violence in Anbar province is part of a wider struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the region.
Cordesman believes the U.S. needs to find the least bad option.
"A lot of what we can do is simply to, very quietly, try to bring the factions together, to push the Maliki government to take a more balanced view, to treat the Sunnis, give them more respect, to stop this kind of series of political purges," said Cordesman.
Nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
Polls show the conflict was among the most divisive for Americans, with many still questioning what was accomplished.