(BAGDAD) — Just two years after U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq, the U.S. ambassador there says the country may be one suicide attack away from a full-on civil war.
“We’re in a very precarious situation where a misstep anywhere could set off larger conflicts within the country, and that’s what we need to stay away from,” Ambassador Robert Stephen Beecroft told ABC News during an interview at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. “The wrong person gets killed, the wrong mosque gets attacked and exploded and you run the risk of sectarian conflict.”
Beecroft said 2,000 “hard core” extremists are estimated to be provoking sectarian violence within the country.
“You look from 2008 basically to 2012, you’re about half all those years combined of what you had this year in 2013,” he said of the levels of violence. “It’s a real spike and a real, real serious problem.”
So, what’s to blame for the recent spike in bloodshed?
“You’ve got a lot of guys, who are, unfortunately, committed to a bad cause, and they have access to weapons and arms and funding, and they are able to use suicide bombers…and that’s really what the violence has been,” Beecroft said, when asked why the security situation has spiraled out of control in some parts of the country.
The recent fighting has been particularly severe in Anbar province, where al Qaeda-affiliated fighters and other extremists have taken control of parts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Beecroft estimated that there are several hundred extremist militants currently in Fallujah, but would not estimate the number in Ramadi, because he said “they’ve basically been forced out of most parts of Ramadi” and do not have centralized control.
Back in the United States, veterans and the families of those who died in Iraq have watched the latest developments there with concern. And Beecroft said that’s one reason he’s so worried about the situation in the region.
“I can understand people looking at Fallujah and feeling frustrated, heartbroken and disappointed,” he said. “But I would ask them to look at the larger picture. Look at Iraq…You see more automobiles on the street, you see more people on the street, you see the stores open, you see them filled with goods — not just filled but with goods, with products from around the world.”
Beecroft credits the United States, and the military in particular, for contributing to the stability, where it exists, in Iraq. And he said that hasn’t been lost on the Iraqi people.
“There is a tremendous amount of good will out there on the street, because of what they did,” Beecroft said. “Not everyone, but the vast majority of Iraqis, will tell you right up front that you guys gave us the chance to be what we should be: a country that is playing a leading role in the region, a country that is prosperous and a country that is democratic.”
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN
Ivana Kottasova, CNN