WASHINGTON -- Security crises in Egypt, Syria and other countries are overshadowing rising death tolls and new fears of civil war in Iraq, once the top U.S. priority in the Mideast. However, the prospect that sectarian violence could fuel instability beyond Iraq's borders remains a concern for the Obama administration.
Officials and experts say the White House's attention is focused elsewhere -- even as more than 1,000 people were killed in Iraq in July, the deadliest month since 2008. At Thursday's meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, one of the main topics was flights of weapons from Iran across Iraqi airspace into Syria and back as well as the threat from al-Qaida fighters along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
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Surveys show a majority of Americans favor President Barack Obama's hands-off approach toward Iraq after withdrawing the U.S. military from the country in 2011 after nearly nine years of war, at least $767 billion spent in taxpayer funds and nearly 4,500 U.S. troops killed.
But after hitting a low, if grim, level of violence immediately before the U.S. troops left, attacks have resurged in Iraq at a rate reminiscent of its darkest days. A wave of car bombs killed 33 people and wounded dozens others in Baghdad on Thursday, just the latest assault against a fearful public and a government staggering from sectarian political infighting.
"The security situation in Iraq is deteriorating rapidly and is of significant concern," Sen. Bob Corker, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday, a day after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior Iraqi officials during a trip to Baghdad and Irbil, the Kurdish capital in Iraq's north.
"A United States foreign policy that does not recognize this will be very problematic," said Corker, R-Tenn.
In the 20 months since the troop withdrawal, the U.S. has sought to stay out of Iraqi affairs and engage with its government as Washington would with any other nation. A majority of Americans agreed with that approach, and 58 percent of U.S. adults said in a Washington Post-ABC poll taken in March that the Iraq War had not been worth the fight.
Distracted by a civil war in Syria, a policy pivot to Asia, growing extremism in North Africa and Iran's nuclear ambitions, the White House turned its attention elsewhere.
Egypt, once reliably stable, has disintegrated over deadly street riots and attacks that killed more than 600 people Wednesday during protests over the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Jordan, a key U.S. ally, is threatening to collapse under financial strain caused, in large part, by more than 1 million refugees who have crossed into the country from Syria. The U.S. is also leading peace talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities, and watching a growing threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. A threat from al-Qaida led to the closing of 19 diplomatic posts across the region last week.
"That's a pretty large agenda," said Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Iraq is no longer viewed as central to everything the U.S. cares about in the Middle East. But Iraq is still relevant to a wide range that the U.S. cares about."
U.S. officials say they remain actively involved in Iraq, and have quietly stepped up diplomatic efforts over the last six months. The efforts have included helping Iraq smooth over long-standing disputes it has had with some of its neighbors, including Kuwait and Turkey.
But much of the focus has centered on making sure Baghdad's Shiite-led government remains independent from the Shiite government in Iran and staying out of the civil war in Syria, where Sunni Muslim rebels are seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, an Alawite. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Washington has repeatedly chastised Baghdad for allowing Iranian planes to fly weapons over Iraqi airspace to Assad's forces, a violation of U.N. sanctions. A senior Obama administration official said Thursday those flights have been greatly diminished since March, but the official could not say immediately how many Iranian planes have been stopped and inspected. The official wasn't authorized to discuss the diplomacy publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Iraq and the U.S. also are discussing how to curb the new rise of al-Qaida in Iraq, an issue that remains one of the most problematic for the region. Intelligence experts have described the terror group's footing in Iraq and Syria as a new al-Qaida hub in the Mideast, one that has sought for years to underscore Baghdad's inability to protect its people.
Most of the attacks in Iraq target government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims and neighborhoods. The administration official said the number of suicide bombings in Iraq has more than tripled over the last months, and it's believed that most of the attackers are coming from Syria.
"Iraq sits at the intersection of regional currents of increasingly turbulent, violent and unpredictable actions," Kerry said Thursday in remarks with Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister. Kerry said sectarian tensions across the Mideast could "threaten Iraq's stability" if left unchecked.
But Iraq is grappling with its own sectarian tensions that experts say could spawn civil war.
In a report released this week, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group described boiling frustrations among Iraqi Sunnis for being politically sidelined and, in at least one deadly raid in April, targeted by security forces. The report concluded that Sunnis, which account for about 20 percent of Iraq's population, are increasingly resorting to violence and in turn have sparked a backlash from Shiite militias.
"A new wave of violence is engulfing Iraq," the report concluded. "Citizens and politicians alike express fears of a return to sectarian strife."
Zebari, a Kurd who long has played peacemaker between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslim political fronts, acknowledged to reporters Thursday a recent "renewal of violence" in Iraq. But he insisted that his homeland is not returning to civil war.
"We are not going to go there again," he said firmly, referring to the years between 2005 and 2008 when Shiites and Sunnis openly engaged in tit-for-tat attacks that killed tens of thousands of people. In all, at least 117,000 Iraqis were killed between the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion and December 2011, when American troops withdrew.
Even so, Zebari left little doubt that Baghdad does not want to be forgotten among other U.S. foreign policy concerns. He asked for renewed U.S. support for Iraqi security forces and counterterror missions to stand down al-Qaida.
"We've come here to seek your help and support and security cooperation with the Iraqi government," Zebari told Kerry.