The extremists now committing a wave of attacks in Iraq's Anbar province are better trained, funded and equipped than the al-Qaida-linked groups American soldiers battled there, says Brett McGurk, one of the State Department's top officials for Iraq.
The militants, who have drawn strength amid the war in Syria over the border, have taken over parts of Anbar over the last three months.
McGurk says that between 300 and 500 fighters have set up a defensive perimeter around the city of Fallujah, where American soldiers fought some of the fiercest battles of the war. They are armed with high-velocity sniper rifles.
Speaking last week on the sidelines of a conference in northern Iraq, McGurk says they don't have same iron control over the rest of the province. But still the militants have driven out more than 400,000 people since January. And their operations aren't confined to Anbar province. The group has become increasingly and lethally active again across Iraq.
"A key data point are suicide bombers, because suicide bombers – we know that they consider them their most precious (in a very perverse way) and their most strategic resource — they are now able to deploy about 30 to 40 suicide bombers a month here in Iraq," McGurk says.
That's contributing to a horrifying spike in the number of violent deaths. So what's the plan? McGurk says that the Iraqi government has undertaken to employ 10,000 of the tribesmen of Anbar in the security forces. These Sunni tribes complain of neglect by the Shiite-led government and some have even supported the militants. There's also a police training program.
Will that be enough? Zaid al-Ali, who recently published a book, The Struggle for Iraq's Future, says that the problems are broader than that. In Sunni-dominated places like Anbar, they won't be solved by security measures alone. He thinks that chronic unemployment also needs to be addressed, and more importantly, entrenched sectarian practices by the security forces. Detention without charge and torture are far more common in places like Anbar, he says, which feeds hatred of the government.
"It's been a major issue because there is a lot of abuse of detainees in Iraq, and there are a lot of cases – this is not a secret, everyone knows about this – there are a lot of cases of people being detained for no reason, or very long periods of time, without access to attorneys, without access to judges, without access to any type of recourse, and that really needs to change extremely urgently," al-Ali says.
Al-Ali also says that endemic corruption is feeding insecurity. He says that crooked purchasing practices mean that ineffective bomb detectors are widely used, and al-Qaida-linked groups have infiltrated the police and army.
"It's as a result of four, five years incompetence and corruption in the security sector, and it's going to be very hard to overturn at this stage," he says.
All eyes are on Iraqi elections, which are due to happen at the end of April. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has built his political legitimacy on his ability to maintain a modicum of security in Iraq. As he pushes for a third term, such security remains in short supply.