A very prominent Iraqi --a former senior official and ambassador, now out of Iraq -- called the other day to relay the urgent dilemma of his cousins, who live outside Haditha, a Sunni stronghold in western Iraq.

Haditha is the site of a critical dam across the Euphrates that was in U.S. news a month ago when it became a priority for U.S. airstrikes after ISIS seized it. After Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. air strikes, pushed the militant jihadis back, U.S. attention shifted. But ISIS is back, now threatening Haditha.

The dam itself is defended by the Iraqi Army. The surrounding area is defended -- to the extent it can be -- by local Sunni tribal groups. 

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Largely unreported is the underlying rot of an Iraq without government. Thugs and  violent criminal gangs who seek to profit in the lawless interlude before ISIS returns are running rampant. They maraud among inhabitants. 

Local tribes are conserving their limited force to defend the town itself against ISIS. Unless they see some evidence or hope of support from the U.S. or the Iraqi government, they will not intervene. No such word has been forthcoming. The tribal defenders are alone on the ground.

Hence the phone call. His family members near Haditha were threatened with death unless payment of exorbitant sums were made. They had five days to come up with the money. 

There is no reason to doubt the veracity of this story. Life is cheap in Iraq and taking it has no consequences. 

We saw the same pattern play out when chaos erupted in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion in April-May, 2003. Gangs of thugs committed atrocities without restraint. Their incentives were money or drugs or simply because they could.

So the plea from the Iraqi was this:  "Can't a senior U.S. official simply contact the tribal leaders and say, ‘Yes, the U.S. wants them to broaden their control,’ if only just to rein in the criminals?  Or, can’t Washington press the Iraq government to convey such a message?”

Despite the diplomatic capital spent building an international consensus, largely around airstrikes, the people who matter are those on the ground. They are the ones dying. And they will continue to die unless someone other than ISIS manages to take and hold ground and restore order.

This man's relatives would surely have been killed if he hadn’t been able to muster the ransom money. There are similar cases throughout Iraq. But each submission to such extortion chips away at what remains of the fabric of a functioning society. At this point, many Iraqis would rather have ISIS than anarchy. Even Saddam looks good by comparison, the Iraqi told us.

Neither the U.S. nor its coalition can succeed if Iraqis conclude that only ISIS is capable of assuring security.  

After the “surge” of U.S. forces in 2008, desperate Iraqis could turn to American soldiers for protection and financial support. But President Obama’s bootless strategy offers them neither.

Absent popular Iraqi support, the new American-backed Iraqi government in Bagdad will also surely fail, and Obama’s half-hearted about-face will have been for naught.

The prospective loss of the Kurdish Syrian city of Kobani coupled with the growing insecurity of life in much of Iraq are devastating tactical and psychological defeats for the new U.S.-led coalition in the eyes of all Iraqis, especially Sunnis whose allegiance 

Obama is trying to win again. America once again denies the growing anarchy within Iraq at its peril.

Charles Duelfer was Deputy Executive Chairman of UNSCOM from 1993 to 2000 and the head of CIA's Iraq Survey Group, which produced the definitive document on Saddam and his WMD programs in 2004.

Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning writer and author, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She spent 85 days in jail in the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia in 2005 to protect confidential sources.