OPINION: The number of deaths in Iraq from attacks by extremist groups operating under the banner of Islam has been growing steadily since the withdrawal of American troopsin 2011. In 2013, nearly 8900 people died in extremist attacks. The level of casualties has been taken as an indicator of extremist political and military strength.

This dreadful statistic is not just the result of the loss of American military, intelligence and political support. Given the circumstances, Iraqi security forces have shown considerable professionalism in responding to the extremist challenge. But neither is it just “a fight that belongs to the Iraqis”, as US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed recently. The violence experienced by Iraqis since 2011 is closely linked to the ill-conceived and poorly executed American occupation of the country in 2003.

As evidenced by recent insurgent activity in Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraq now faces an assault on its sovereign integrity that is testing the organs of the state.

The fall and rise of Islamic extremism

After the apparent demolition of al-Qaeda in recent years, including the killing of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden, the impetus seemed to have gone out of the extremist movement. However, one of the consequences of the (at best) mixed results of the Arab revolts of 2011 has been a revival of the movement.

While al-Qaeda itself may have suffered terminal damage, many extremist groups have taken up its message to pursue revolutionary change in the region. The number of these groups has swelled over recent months, as has their capacity to inflict damage and provoke chaos in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

Several factors have contributed to this surge of extremist influence. One, which is not yet directly linked to Iraq, is the Egyptian army’s disastrous overthrow of the country’s elected president Mohammed Morsi, and its subsequent persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and reformist elements in the country. This has sent a clear warning that the power elites across the Arab world will not tolerate democratic change and that more violent measures are needed.

Regional factors

A more immediate factor in al-Qaeda’s rise has been the ongoing civil war in Syria, in which the government in Damascus has effectively ceded large parts of north and northeast of the country to the extremist-dominated opposition. This has given the extremists a secure base from which to organise attacks on both governments and has seen Iraq’s Anbar and Syria’s Deir El-Zour provinces merged into a single operational unit.

In waging war against Baghdad and Damascus, the extremists have benefited from support from neighbours. The Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have stepped in to exploit the power vacuum left by the United States and are pursuing their rivalry with Iran by providing money, arms and fighters to the insurgencies. This is a short-sighted policy that, like their support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, may rebound against them.

While the policies of the Saudis are particularly pernicious, Iran’s role also adds to the level of violence. Iran has an interest in regional stability. It needs a stable western border, especially if – as widely expected – order in Afghanistan breaks down with the departure of US troops later this year.

Although he is probably not their preferred candidate, Tehran sees Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as the means for promoting that stability in Iraq. However, taken with its support for the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s role in Iraq serves as a provocation of extremists fed on a diet of hostility to Shi'a Islam.

Internal instability

Another important factor has been al-Maliki himself. A Shi'a Muslim, he suffered along with many other Shi'a at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s government and its Sunni supporters. Since coming to power in 2006, al-Maliki has struggled to put aside his hostility towards Iraq’s Sunnis to pursue inclusive national policies.

Instead, immediately after the US withdrawal, he initiated a program driving Sunnis from positions of power.

Al-Maliki’s policies are also driven by elections that are due in April. Local elections in 2013 showed a marked deterioration in his standing among Iraq’s Shi'a, and he needs to regain their support. He sees a tough line against Sunni dissent as a way of achieving this end.

The Sunni-dominated Anbar province has responded badly to al-Maliki’s perceived hostility. While few people anywhere in the region would choose to live under the sharia principles of the extremists, there is a well of anger towards Baghdad in the province that the various groups have been able to dip into, resulting in a level of tolerance among the Sunni population of the activities of the insurgents.

This has also extended to the province’s powerful tribes, which appear to be hedging their bets on the outcome of the confrontation between Baghdad and the extremists.

Where to now?

A solution to the problem of Iraq’s insurgency will not be found quickly. It cannot be developed by the Iraqis alone and cannot be separated from the civil war in Syria. It must involve a major political effort involving all the parties affected by the conflict. Arms alone will not achieve anything lasting.

Possibly the greatest hope for Iraq and the wider region lies in a serious rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Such a development would revolutionise the politics of the region, putting the authoritarian regimes on notice and forcing the Saudis and other Gulf states to end their anti-Iran campaign and to work towards political solutions in Iraq and Syria.

We may already be seeing signs of such a future with Oman facilitating US-Iran contacts and rejecting Saudi plans for an anti-Iran military alliance in the Gulf. Other small Gulf countries are also beginning to review their options, but will it stop the bloodshed in Iraq?

Dr Anthony Billingsley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, UNSW. 

This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.