10 years later, Iraq slides back into sectarian war

Iraq may be sliding into a sectarian civil war -- always the feared worst case scenario when the U.S. pulled its troops out of the country in 2011. 

 CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward reports the Iraqi Army has pushed into Ramadi, clashing with al Qaeda-linked militants who have taken over large parts of the city, and who seized full control of neighboring Fallujah just days ago.

Both cities in the western Anbar province were at the heart of the insurgency during the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

More than 1,300 Americans died fighting to wrest the area from militants a decade ago. Now, Fallujah and Ramadi are on the new front line in a sectarian battle that threatens to engulf the entire region.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. would offer assistance to the Iraqi government -- but he made it clear Washington isn't about to jump back into the conflict.

"We're not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we're going to help them in their fight. And yes, we have an interest,” said Kerry. “This is a fight that is bigger than just Iraq."

  At its heart, this is less a battle of ideology and more a struggle for regional power between Shiite Muslim powers Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, and Sunni Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Iran has also offered to help the Iraqi government in its fight, but that would only enrage the militants and many local Sunni Muslims who already see Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as an extension of Iran’s cleric-ruled regime.

The militants fighting in Iraq are members of the al Qaida-linked, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has flourished in the power vacuum left by Syria's civil war next door. Anbar province shares hundreds of miles of border with northeast Syria, and ISIS fighters move back and forth between the countries. Their goal is to establish an Islamic state, or caliphate, that erases internationally recognized borders.

In a recent interview in his home in northern Lebanon, radical cleric and jihadi recruiter Omar Bakri told CBS News he hoped the violence would continue to spread across the region. Asked if he would be happy to see the war in Syria come to Lebanon, Bakri told CBS News, “beyond doubt” that he was “in favor of that -- because after all, the war in Syria it is really for the sake of establishing Islam in the region. And I believe the birth of the Islamic state has really started in Syria.”

While he wouldn’t say the battle to establish that Islamic state would include an increase in “terrorism,” he did say there would be more suicide bombings, “definitely.”

Already that chilling prediction appears to be coming true; a spate of tit-for-tat suicide bombings have rattled Lebanon in recent weeks. On Monday, a Lebanese reporter from Hezbollah's TV station died of wounds sustained in last week's bombing of the militant Shiite group's stronghold in southern Beirut, the Associated Press reports. This was preceded in late December by the assassination of a prominent Lebanese politician critical of Syria's government and Hezbollah.

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