WASHINGTON—Two years after President Barack Obama removed all U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the al-Qaida threat in the region has grown more menacing, but few analysts or lawmakers agree on what role the U.S. should play in the on-going conflict.

“Al-Qaida was severely marginalized in 2006-2011 by the United States, but it’s made a comeback,” James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said at a Jan. 29 panel discussion.

In 2013, there were 9,000 deaths related to the conflict in Iraq, the highest toll since U.S. troops departed, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif, said on Feb. 5. In January, al-Qaida took control of Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad in the Anbar region where its militant forces have flourished.

Suicide bombings in Iraq have increased dramatically over the past year. In November, 50 suicide attacks were carried out, compared to four in November 2012, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Brett McGurk during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last month. Many of these attacks were initiated by al-Qaida’s primary offshoot in Iraq, called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

“The violence may appear indiscriminate, but it is not,” McGurk said. “From what we are seeing, [al-Qaida] attacks are calculated, coordinated and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader.”

The terrorist group’s goal, McGurk said, is to destroy the Iraqi government and take control of the western region of the country. To do this, the group is attacking Shia, Sunni and Kurd groups in an effort to ignite a civil war in Iraq, a country that has experienced tense sectarian divides.

Al-Qaida, once a relatively defined and hierarchical organization that originated in Pakistan, has metastasized since its inception in 1988, with offshoot groups in more than 16 countries, according to a March 17 Foreign Policy article.

The organization is partly driven by ideology and partly a “network of networks,” said Douglas Struesand, a professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va. The terrorist organization seeks to bring about an I
slamic totalitarianism, and it is doing that by gaining control of troubled territories and creating “havens” for terrorists, Struesand said at a Jan. 29 panel discussion.

There are many al-Qaida offshoots throughout the Middle East and Africa. But the al-Qaida force that has emerged in Iraq can potentially exert more power over the region because of the availability of resources.

Al-Qaida in Iraq, which emerged in 2004 as a Sunni extremist group, has continued to commit acts of violence in Iraq, according to the National Counter Terrorism Center 2014 calendar, a sort of encyclopedia of terrorism information and networks in the world.

Phillips, the Heritage fellow, said cited at least several reasons for al-Qaida’s comeback in Iraq. The organization has taken advantage of the mistakes of the current Iraqi government, which is still in its early development. Second, the group taps into the fears of the Sunni population, a minority sect in Iraq that feels marginalized by the Shia majority, Phillips said.

Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq, and the elected leader of the Shia-dominated government, said in January he would send troops to take back fallen Fallujah, but that effort has not been successful, according to a UPI report.

“By ruling in an increasingly authoritative and sectarian manner, the prime minister has pushed Sunnis into the hands of al-Qaida,” Phillips said.

The population near Fallujah “is not necessarily pro-al-Qaida, but virulently anti-Maliki,” said Jessica Lewis, research director at the Institute for Study of War.

Another reason al-Qaida in Iraq has gained power is by taking advantage of the civil war in Syria. That conflict has made it easier for al-Qaida to add resources and recruits as terrorists travel frequently across the porous border between the two countries, McGurk said.

“We have found that ISIL has such a strong media presence that it can sustain itself through recruitment,” said New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s leading Democrat.

McGurk said tribal groups in Fallujah and Anbar have requested assistance and are preparing to fight al-Qaida. The Iraqi government sent weapons and supplies to the tribes in the region resisting al-Qaida.

“The tribes will fight, but they must be confident that they are going to win,” McGurk said. “For this to happen ISIL [al-Qaida] networks must be constantly pressured.”

In May 2013, Obama said “the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat.” In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., the president also said that many of Osama Bin Laden’s top lieutenants are dead.

Committee members expressed conflicting views about returning American forces to the region.

“Let them kill each other,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. “We’ve done enough. I am so happy we don’t have a bunch of American troops in that mess.”

“I‘ll make very clear that the U.S. withdrawal of troops in Iraq was the biggest mistake,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who served in the Air Force in Iraq. “The U.S. should help Iraq in a limited way using air power.”