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Chaos in Anbar Province [Editorial]

Al-Qaida returned as a force be reckoned with in Iraq this month when militants affiliated with the terrorist group captured two important cities in Anbar Province along the country's western border with Syria, a hotbed of Sunni Muslim resistance to the country's Shiite-led government and a region where U.S. troops earlier had fought some of the toughest battles against insurgents since the Vietnam War. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. is prepared to send shipments of military aid to help Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki's forces oust the rebels from the areas they occupy in Fallujah and Ramadi, while at the same time stressing that no American ground troops will be sent to Iraq.

Yet it will take more than just arms to keep Iraq from fragmenting under the strain of its growing sectarian strife. If al-Qaida is to be defeated, Mr. al-Maliki must move quickly to make his government more responsive to the demands of the country's restive Sunni minority. His stubborn refusal to do so thus far is largely what has fueled the current insurgency and given al-Qaida, which had been largely defeated by the U.S. military surge in 2007, a toehold to return to the area.

That danger was clearly foreseen by administration officials when Iraq refused to sign off on an agreement with the U.S. that would have allowed a scaled-down American military presence to remain in the country after the bulk of U.S. and allied troops departed in 2008. Mr. al-Maliki's government, jealous of its sovereignty, had insisted on the right to try American military personnel accused of crimes in Iraqi courts rather than allowing them to be brought before U.S. military tribunals — a demand the Pentagon has never acceded to anywhere else in the world and flatly refused to countenance in Iraq.

Now Mr. Maliki's government is suffering the consequences of its own poor judgment regarding that failed agreement, as well as its high-handed treatment of the country's Sunni Muslim minority. A political solution that gives Sunnis more say over their government's policies and greater economic opportunity is likely the only way to end the fighting and take the wind out of al-Qaida's sails in a region where tribal militias and sectarian conflict are endemic and group loyalties ever-shifting. Even under Saddam Hussein, Anbar Province was known as a place where the central government was wise to tread lightly. Mr. al-Maliki ignores that history at his peril.

But Mr. Kerry is right to say that this is now Iraq's problem, not ours. After fighting al-Qaida for more than a decade in Afghanistan, the U.S. obviously has an interest in preventing it from regrouping in Iraq and using that nation as a base from which to plot new attacks on the American homeland. That doesn't necessarily require sending in ground troops to reoccupy the country, however. On the contrary, American boots on the ground would likely only further inflame the situation, if past experience is any guide.

Mr. al-Maliki was in Washington in November to plead for, among other things, American armed drones and ground crews to operate them in order to target al-Qaida militants in Anbar Province and elsewhere around the country. The White House hasn't made a decision on that request, but it is sending the Iraqi military 75 Hellfire missiles and light Cessna attack aircraft that can carry out similar intelligence-gathering and surveillance missions.

Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have harshly criticized the Obama administration for failing to secure an agreement that would have allowed a more robust U.S. military presence to remain in Iraq, including Special Forces trainers and advisers authorized to participate alongside Iraqi troops in counterinsurgency operations.

But beyond basing Predator drones and their crews in the country, there may be little America can do directly to influence events in Iraq as long as Mr. al-Maliki insists on behaving as if his Shiite government has the right to ride roughshod over the country's Sunni minority. That's a political decision only Iraq's leaders can make, and until they do the White House is right to steer clear of any deeper involvement in the country's troubles.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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