What role should the U.S. play in keeping al-Qaida from gaining Iraq foothold?

While Iraqi government tanks lined the outskirts of Fallujah, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged Sunni tribal leaders to help drive out al-Qaida militants. Judy Woodruff talks to journalist Jane Arraf and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey about the sectarian grievances at play and the U.S.’s role.


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JUDY WOODRUFF:  Today, the Obama administration announced it will accelerate sales and deliveries of military equipment to Iraq, as that country's government continues to fight for control of two key cities. 

Gunfire echoed across Fallujah today, as al-Qaida militants held on to the city they overran last week, while Iraqi army tanks lined the outskirts.  The military held off an all-out assault.  Instead, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged Sunni tribal leaders to help remove the militants.  One of the leaders said meetings were under way to try to return the city to government control. 

SHEIK ALI AL-MEHEMDI, Tribal Leader (through translator):  Tribesmen are in constant communication to impose security and expel armed men out of the city.  We are about to recall the police forces to the city to assume security responsibility after the artillery shelling stops. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  But, in the streets, al-Qaida fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant warned of retribution. 

FALLUJA MILITARY COUNCIL MEMBER (through interpreter):  The revolutionaries of our tribes in Fallujah have resolved to punish the tribesmen who support the sectarian government forces. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The militants also seized nearby Ramadi last week, also in Anbar province, where Sunni hostility to the Shiite-led government is centered.  It boiled over last April, when security forces assaulted a Sunni protest camp, sparking months of bombings across Iraq. 

On Saturday, Maliki warned Sunnis against aiding extremists. 

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Iraqi Prime Minister (through interpreter):  I am calling on those who are deluding themselves to reconsider.  They have been involved without knowing in supporting al-Qaida projects and protecting it in several ways, including giving media and political support. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Fallujah is where American troops suffered some of their greatest losses before the final withdrawal two years ago. 

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry ruled out sending troops back in. 

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State:  We're not contemplating putting boots on the ground.  This is their fight, but we're going to help them in their fight. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Today, White House officials said part of that help will come in the form of new surveillance drones to help track insurgents. 

So how did al-Qaida-linked militants make these gains in Western Iraq, and what is at stake for the U.S.? 

For that, we turn to James Jeffrey.  He was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012.  And Jane Arraf, she's a freelancer for Al-Jazeera America and "The Christian Science Monitor" who has been reporting from Iraq since 1991.  She spent eight years as CNN's Baghdad bureau chief. 

Thank you both.  It's good to have you with us. 

JAMES JEFFREY, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq:  Thank you. 

JANE ARRAF, Al-Jazeera:  Thank you. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Jane Arraf, let me start with you.  You were telling us today this is a situation that has been building for many months. 

JANE ARRAF:  It has. 

And I think while the West was ignoring Iraq, essentially, the country has become partitioned.  And in Fallujah -- Fallujah is really just -- it's less than 40 miles from the center of Baghdad, right, but to get to Fallujah, you have to pass roadblocks.  The army has essentially sealed off the town, the same way they have sealed off other Sunni areas. 

It's been a year of grievances, a year of protests.  And as the American military always used to say and the American State Department, there's no military solution to this.  But the political solution that people feel we should have been seeing just hasn't been there. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And what has been behind Prime Minister Maliki's moves to isolate, to seal off the Sunnis in this part of the country, the Anbar province?

JANE ARRAF:  It's really easy to see this, I think, as a sectarian conflict, Sunni vs. Shia, but I think that's oversimplifying it in a very complicated country in a really complicated, increasingly complicated region. 

At the heart of Maliki's decisions, I think, having covered him for many years, is the real fear that his government is in a precarious position.  It's the only Shia-led government, essentially, in the Middle East, and he firmly believes that given half a chance Sunnis will come from Anbar and other places, tear down the barriers in the Green Zone and come and kill them all.  It's that basic.  It's a fight for survival. 

And that is at the heart of it. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And, Ambassador Jeffrey, so what effect has that strategy had on the Sunni population in Iraq?

JAMES JEFFREY:  Well, it has isolated them and alienated them.  but this would have been bearable if it wasn't for the situation in Syria.  That has provided an al-Qaida cousin group, the ISIS, ground to develop themselves to dig in, to receive a great deal of money and weapons and recruits from around the Middle East. 

And they have now united with the remnants of the former al-Qaida in Iraq group.  And what we see is al-Qaida taking -- taking the offensive, really. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Now, the al-Qaida linked militants are Sunni as well.  How -- how much sympathy, how much alliance is there between them and the Sunni tribes in Iraq? 

JAMES JEFFREY:  Well, it's almost down to a personal level. 

In general, the tribes who of course rebelled against the al-Qaida-controlled areas of Anbar province back in 2006-2007 have grievances against al-Qaida that at the moment go more deep than the grievances against the Iraqi government.  Iraq, remember, is still primarily 80 percent a Kurdish, a Shia Arab state, so there is no danger of the al-Qaida people overrunning the country. 

The question is control in these areas.  Right now, Maliki can quasi-count on the support of most of the tribes in this three-way battle against al-Qaida. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, Jane, we read today that Maliki, that the government forces have now surrounded Fallujah.  At least that's the way it's described in the wire reports. 

What are you hearing?  And are they -- are they in -- and Maliki has called on the Sunni tribal leaders to drive out the al-Qaida militants on their own.  Is that something they're capable of doing? 

JANE ARRAF:  That is an absolutely extraordinary statement, because really what we're talking about are people -- let alone the tribal leaders -- we're talking about a city that in 2003 was essentially taken over by al-Qaida. 

They had rigged bombs in a lot of the houses.  There were trip wires almost everywhere.  And what we're talking about now is another version of al-Qaida.  They have had a lot of practice and they have come from Syria, where there are foreign fighters, where there is money pouring in.  This is not the al-Qaida of 2003.  And it's still a city of people and of tribes who are not that fond of the Iraqi government. 

They're going to form alliances, but one of the things we have to really talk about, I think, is the Sahwa, the Awakening, the tribes who turned against al-Qaida and fought with the American forces and then were essentially abandoned by the United States. 

Their leaders have been assassinated.  They're the people who are being called to fight al-Qaida.  And it's not that clear they're going to. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, that's my question, Ambassador Jeffrey.

What can we look to happen?  Maliki is saying, you do this.  But then he's got troops on the outside of the town, of the city.  I mean, can his forces year overrun al-Qaida if they want? 

JAMES JEFFREY:  In the end, he's got enough heavy armor, artillery, and he's got hundreds of thousands of troops.  So he can win any conventional set piece battle. 

The question is, does he want to do that in a city with some 300,000 inhabitants?  We basically had the inhabitants evacuated before we went in, in 2004.  The tribes can't do it alone.  But, together, the hope is that they will put enough pressure on al-Qaida that they will fade back into the desert.  Whether that will happen or not, we are just going to have to wait and see. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Meanwhile, Ambassador Jeffrey, what is the -- what is the interest for the United States here?  Clearly, the U.S. is opposed to al-Qaida getting a foothold.  But, beyond that, what does the U.S. want to have happen and how much can it affect it?

JAMES JEFFREY:  Well, I would disagree with -- respectfully, with Secretary Kerry.  This is our fight. 

We fought there in 2004.  And we fought there to in part drive al-Qaida out after they established a foothold.  The Maliki government, for all of its problems, is still a government that is a quasi-ally of ours.

It is a constitutional regime.  They do work one way or another with many of the Sunnis and most of the Kurds.  And it's in our interest not to allow al-Qaida to establish another foothold.  That is the basic premise on all of our actions.  And we're taking pretty good actions, with the additional equipment, the drones, the Hellfire missiles, the advice, the intelligence and such. 

We probably need to do more.  And we need to have a different attitude, I think, in how we pitch this, because people are watching us in Iraq to try to find out, are we in this game, not with ground troops, not with our solders fighting, but with support for whoever, be it Maliki, be it the tribes who are willing to take on al-Qaida?  That is not completely clear yet. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Jane, how -- having been in the region so recently, is the view of the people there that the U.S. is or isn't engaged?  Where do you see this going? 

JANE ARRAF:  I think it is definitely the view that the U.S. isn't engaged and hasn't been engaged for some time. 

And I think it's completely clear Iraqis do not want to see U.S. troops.  I also don't think it's clear though that Hellfire missiles and drones are the answer.  I mean, this really is a region that feels that it's not a part of Iraq.  And when I have been there, I have interviewed women who have been imprisoned to put pressure on their husbands to confess to terrorism, countless executions that take place, children being rounded up. 

It's not just a matter, really, of al-Qaida controlling Fallujah.  It's a matter of, is this country actually even going to work?  And you can't cut off Fallujah.  You can't cut off the Sunni areas.  Then it ceases to be Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, we're certainly going to be watching it.

Jane Arraf, Ambassador James Jeffrey, we thank you both. 

JAMES JEFFREY:  Thank you, Judy. 

JANE ARRAF:  Thank you.