Conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency and Iraq risks a full-scale civil war after an al-Qaeda-linked militant group called ISIS quickly seized a large section of the country’s northern region. The group has already taken Mosul, the country’s second largest city, and is within striking distance of Baghdad.
Insurgents stripped the main army base in the northern city of Mosul of weapons, released hundreds of prisoners from the city’s jails, and may have seized up to $480 million in banknotes from the city’s banks.
Government forces have stalled the militants’ advance near Samarra, a city just 68 miles north of Baghdad.
How did ISIS take control of Mosul?
The short answer: the Iraqi army ran away. Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Senior government officials in Baghdad were equally shocked, accusing the army of betrayal and claiming the sacking of the city was a strategic disaster that would imperil Iraq’s borders.
Who is ISIS?
ISIS (aka ISIL) is the group that during the Iraq War was often referred to as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” ISIS stands for The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the group is actually called “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” but most western media translate “Levant” as “Syria.”). The group claims it is an independent state with claims to Iraq, Syria, and Lebannon. It was established in the early years of the Iraq War and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004.
The group has target military and governments of Iraq and Syria but has also claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians.
According to a study compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies, the ISI have plans to seize power and turn the country into a Sunni Islamic state.
Wasn’t Syria having similar problems?
Yes. Syria has been in a civil war that has killed over 100,000 Syrians and displaced millions. See also: Explainer: What’s Going on in Syria?
Will the U.S. be getting involved?
Probably not. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas. But Iraq’s appeals for a military response have so far been rebuffed by the White House.
“Ultimately, this is for the Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi government to deal with,” Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday.
Why is this a concern for the West?
As in Syria, the conflict in Iraq is causing a refugee crisis. Save the Children has said, “ “We are witnessing one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory. The majority of Iraqis fleeing Mosul had to escape in a matter of minutes.”
Addendum: The difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites
Do Sunnis and Shi’ite have the same beliefs in common?
Mostly, at least on the basics. For Christians, the Nicene creed is often viewed as the basic statement of faith, the essentials agreed upon by all orthodox believers. Muslims have a similar creed (shahadah) roughly translated as, “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” The Shi’ite, however, tack on an additional sentence: “Ali is the Friend of Allah. The Successor of the Messenger of Allah And his first Caliph.”
Who is this Ali?
Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the reason these groups don’t get along (the terms Shia and Shi’ite come from condensing Shiat Ali, “partisans of Ali”). After Muhammad died, the leadership of the Muslim believers (the Ummah) was the responsibility of the Caliph, a type of tribal leader/Pope. The Sunnis respect Ali and consider him the fourth Caliph while the Shi’a contends he was cheated out of being first. Sunnis, following the tradition of the period, thought the Caliph should be chosen by the community while Shi’ites believe the office should be passed down only to direct descendants of Muhammad.
Which group is bigger?
Around 85 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni while only about 15 percent are Shi’a. Iran is predominantly Shi’a while Saudi Arabia, and almost all other Arab countries, are Sunni.
And al Qaeda is . . . ?
Members of al Qaeda are part of a strict, legalistic version of Sunni known as Wahhabism.
Other posts in this series: