Sunni Muslim militants have gained control of territory in western Iraq's Anbar province in recent weeks, and intense fighting has broken out in two of Anbar's main cities, Fallouja and Ramadi, that were the sites of crucial battles during the
The Iraqi government of Prime Minister
Across the border in Syria, militant groups are playing an increasingly large role in the insurgency against President
As some ISIS militants were fighting government forces in western Iraq on Friday, others were battling other Syrian rebel groups trying to limit their reach near Aleppo, in western Syria.
Some current and former U.S. officials say they believe the
"It was bad enough when this contagion was just inside Syria, but now it's spreading, and that's a whole lot worse," said Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to '09. Nothing could be more worrisome, he said, than the militant groups' plan to expand their grip on territory, giving them a base from which they could plot long-range operations.
For about eight weeks, unarmed U.S. drones sporadically flew over Anbar to gather intelligence to target militants, but they "have been temporarily halted at the request of the Iraqi government," a senior U.S. official said.
Iraq has also rejected proposals for the use of armed U.S. drones in its airspace for fear of a public outcry.
The insurgency has built support in Anbar because of Sunnis' perceptions that they have been disenfranchised by Maliki's government, which is dominated by Shiite Muslims. Sunnis also are at the heart of the rebellion against Assad. The Assad government is based in his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and is closely allied with Iran's Shiite government.
U.S. officials have worried about being drawn into a sectarian war. They fear that military gear supplied to the Iraqis could be used by the government not just to fight the insurgents, but to suppress its Sunni political enemies. They also worry that weapons given to Baghdad could end up being diverted to Syria and used by fighters supporting Assad.
Maliki's government has lobbied aggressively for
Maliki plans to seek a third term in office, another factor that has made him reluctant to appear too close to the United States, U.S. officials believe.
Brian Katulis, a Middle East specialist at the Center for American Progress, said that though there has been cooperation between Washington and Baghdad, "there has been a fundamental misalignment between what the U.S. is willing to offer and what they're willing to accept."
U.S. officials believe the key to gaining ground in the fight is finding and destroying the militants and their camps. They have offered intelligence-gathering efforts and related hardware.
But the Iraqis "are less willing to accept that, because they're worried it's going to allow the U.S. to look under the hood and see what they're doing," Katulis said. Instead, he said, the Iraqis have emphasized big-ticket military hardware that they could operate themselves, including F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters.
The Obama administration, which withdrew its last troops from the country in 2011, has proclaimed the militants' advance a problem of concern not only to Baghdad.
It "poses a threat to the entire region, and to the United States," President Obama said in November, before a meeting with Maliki to discuss arms aid and other issues.
Though the U.S. aid has been welcome, military analysts say, Iraq will need far more to fight the militants, who now often have heavier weapons than Iraqi government forces.
A senior U.S. official said the Pentagon currently had no plan to offer more arms beyond what has already been authorized.
The secret surveillance flights that have now been halted grew out of a request for greater military help that Maliki made during a visit to the U.S. in November. U.S. officials said at the time that while Iraq's hardware request would take some time, they could begin the surveillance almost immediately. Iraq agreed.
The flights offered far better intelligence than could be gathered with the small ScanEagles. They could peer deep into Syria, as well as at the border region, officials said.
James Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador to Iraq during Obama's first term, said he believed the administration would have "no other choice" than to provide more military aid.
Marie Harf, a
"Our overall point is to encourage moderates on all sides and isolate extremists," she said.
In Syria, groups linked to Al Qaeda have increasingly been fighting other rebel groups with which they are nominally allied. On Friday, clashes took place in the northern part of the country as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria tried to seize the town of Atarib, near Aleppo, to capture a former government military base.
From Atarib, the clashes spread to several neighborhoods in Aleppo, where local rebel groups claimed to have expelled the ISIS fighters. Casualties were reported on both sides, but an accurate death toll was not available.
"It's a war, not just battles," said Aleppo activist Nazeer Khatib.