An Essential Guide to Understanding the Violent Conflict Unfolding in Iraq


The world finally woke up to the horror unfolding in Iraq last week, when the country's second-largest city, Mosul, fell to Islamist militants, leading 500,000 to flee the northern city.

The group behind the insurgency, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is an offshoot of al-Qaida and has been ruthless beyond measure. One Reuters reporter described bodies of security forces littering Mosul's streets, as the black flags of ISIS hung over Mosul's government buildings. Photos released by ISIS on June 15 reportedly show a gruesome mass execution of soldiers carried out by ISIS in the Salahuddin province.

Image Credit: AP. Mass execution carried out by ISIL in Tikrit, Iraq.

ISIS also seized Tikrit shortly after capturing Mosul, with the help of former Bath Party members, the party that supported Saddam Hussein. The group is now attempting to advance toward Baghdad, and Iraq's military is scrambling to stop them. The surge in sectarian violence has sounded alarm bells around the world, and the U.S. is now debating whether or not to get involved.

Because the situation is so complicated, with a long list of foreign and domestic players and actors, here's a guide to help you understand what is happening in Iraq:

Who is ISIS?

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was formed in August 2013 and has its roots in Iraq, but has become stronger during the civil war in neighboring Syria. The group has an ambitious vision to create an Islamic state that reaches into al-Sham, or "greater Syria." The group's leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a man who has amassed an army of fighters from around the world. According to some estimates, ISIS has 3,000 to 5,000 fighters in Syria and 6,000 in Iraq.

Image Credit: Vox

ISIS has earned a reputation for using brutal tactics in Syria, such as executions, suicide bombings and even the crucifixion of a man accused of murder. In Iraq, they've set the country into a state of fear with their merciless tactics: Just this week they beheaded soldiers, and there are also unverified reports of mass beheadings in Mosul.

The group now controls an area spanning between Aleppo's eastern edge and Falluja in the west, as well as Mosul. For comparison, that area is "approximately the size of Belgium," Yale University professor Jason Lyall told Vox.

Are they connected to al-Qaida?

ISIS is not actually part of al-Qaida. ISIS evolved from a previous group, ISI (Islamic State of Iraq), which was once affiliated with al-Qaida. But ISI split with al-Qaida under the leadership of Musab al-Zarqawi, nicknamed "the Butcher of Baghdad." Their tactics are so gruesome that al-Qaida has actually criticized them as being too extreme.

Image Credit: AP. Members of ISIS march in Raqqa, Syria.

Who else is involved?

While much of the spotlight has been on ISIS, they aren't the only group involved in the capture of Mosul. Some of the fighters who took over the city are Sunnis who are disgruntled with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rule and the U.S. presence in the country. A resident of Tikrit told the Guardian that some of the insurgents were seen dressed in the green military fatigues worn by Saddam Hussein's army, and were overheard "playing Saddam and Ba'ath party songs" during the capture of the city.

What about the Kurds?

The situation gets still more complicated. Capitalizing on the chaos, Kurdish forces have also seized the northern city of Kirkuk, often called the "Jerusalem of Kurdistan." The Kurds want to create their own independent nation, and want Kirkuk to be the future capital of an independent Kurdistan.

Image Credit: AP. Kurdish security forces in Kirkuk. 

Shoresh Haji, a Kurdish member of Iraq's parliament, told Al-Jazeera, "I hope that the Kurdish leadership will not miss this golden opportunity to bring Kurdish lands in the disputed territories back under Kurdish control."

So is this all about religion? 

What's happening in Iraq is much more complicated than a religious or a sectarian conflict. At the heart of the country's current troubles is Iraq's prime minister. Writing for the National, Hassan Hassan explains that ISIS was able to come to prominence through "the imprudent policies of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki."

Maliki has alienated much of the country's Sunni population through corrupt and sectarian policies, such as his continued resistance to making peace with the country's Sunni minority, which has helped brew discontent in Sunni-majority areas and fuel the expansion of ISIS.

What is the role of the West?

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and America's subsequent missteps certainly helped create the perfect situation for a group like ISIS to emerge. But the U.S. is not the only one to blame. Juan Cole, an American academic and expert on the Middle East, places blame for this week's tragedy as far back as the "shameful European imperial scramble" in the region after World War I. It was that imperial rule that helped sow the seeds of the sectarianism that has taken center stage in this week's tragic violence.

Image Credit: Vox

Cole explains that the British fomented sectarianism in Iraq, while the French similarly created divisions within Syria as a tactic for rule.

Is Iran also involved?

Just like the U.S., Iran sees the rise of ISIS as a threat. Hayder al-Khoei, associate fellow at London think tank Chatham House, told IranWire, "They are worried that this is going to give ISIS a further stepping stone, and act as a launching pad for the rest of Iraq." Iran, a Shia country, is afraid that ISIS will destroy symbolic Shia shrines, which could "trigger another sectarian and civil war."

Accordingly, Iran has reportedly sent at least 500 revolutionary guard troops to support Iraq's security forces.

What does this mean for the U.S.?

The Obama administration is currently scrambling. President Obama was quick to condemn the takeover of Mosul and said the administration is entertaining "a range of options," even though he will not be sending troops again.

Image Credit: AP. U.S. troops in Iraq in 2005. 

Prior to the attack, Prime Minister Maliki asked that the White House carry out a strike against ISIS, but the White House denied it. There is pressure on Obama to act swiftly, however, particularly because America helped to create the situation.

The U.S. is in a tough position. Any U.S. efforts to curb ISIS will most likely create even more anti-Americanism, since this would be viewed as Obama standing behind Maliki.

The situation also places the U.S. in a position to consider the possibility of cooperating with Iran.