There are wars within war each with their own logic and tragedy. Fallujah, where Iraqi Security Forces and tribal allies surround a city controlled by al-Qaida backed militants, sits at the nexus of three wars the United States can do little to stop.
The first war is over real estate. Fallujah is a struggle between power brokers to control routes connecting Iraq and Syria. Historically, groups compete to control the highway passing through the city linking Baghdad and Al Qaim on the Syrian border as a means of moving illicit goods. In fact after the 2004 battle of Fallujah dislodged militants, al-Qaida in Iraq shifted its sanctuary to the Al Qaim District along the Syrian border. The move displaced prominent Sunni tribes and led to the Sunni Awakening, a tribal uprising against al-Qaida in Iraq.
The struggle to control this corridor re-emerged in 2013. In January, Efan al-Essawi, an Iraqi Parliament member, was killed in a suicide bomb attack. He owned a construction company that was working on the main highway connecting Baghdad to Syrian border crossing points, including Al Qaim District.
The second war is over the heart of a nation and the political monopoly on the use of force. Fallujah is part of a larger uprising against the Iraqi government. More than 8,800 Iraqis died in the last year in sectarian violence and political opposition to Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki. Sunni protesters set up in camps in Fallujah and Ramadi to rally against perceived discrimination by the Shiite-dominated Maliki government. As protests spread, Maliki's inner circle began to view the rallies as the start of a Sunni war of secession. In December, events neared the brink as 44 legislators resigned from Parliament in a demand for the Iraqi army, viewed by Sunnis as a Shiite militia, to pull out of Sunni communities. In Fallujah, masked gunmen killed the Sunni leader of anti-government protesters.
The third war is over regional hegemony. The resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq is fueled by the Syrian civil war and regional sectarian struggle. As the Maliki government supports the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Iraqi Sunni minority fears they are next. The Syrian conflict spills across the border as patrons in the Gulf States fund rebel groups to counter Iranian support for Assad. In April, al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The group spread across Anbar Province along the strategic corridor running through Fallujah connecting Baghdad and the Syrian border.
Despite the tremendous sacrifices made by American servicemen and their Iraqi counterparts to secure Fallujah in 2004, there is little the United States can do to contain the fighting. Ground forces are out of the question, and drones would require a footprint and could very well alienate Sunni tribes once allied with the United States. Sending additional weapons to Iraqi forces only escalates what future historians may mark as the beginning of a civil war.
The only hope to contain the wars of Fallujah lies in finding a diplomatic solution to the struggle between Sunni and Shiites, and the United States can play a productive role. Sunni Arab states are suspicious of American efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. They view Iran as seeking to challenge their interests in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. The only way to break the impasse is to get all parties to sit down and negotiate. Such a move will require reassuring key allies in the region like Saudi Arabia and Jordan while maintaining the pressure on Iran.
Until then Fallujah is a microcosm of a region on the abyss.
Benjamin Jensen, an officer in the Army Reserve, is director of advanced studies at the Marine Corps University Command and Staff College and a scholar-in-residence at American University.