Iraq is facing its most severe crisis in years, with the country on the brink of break-up amid lightning offensives by jihadist militants. How has it happened so quickly?
Iraq’s plagued by violence, so what’s new?
Sectarian killings have been escalating again after peaking in 2006 – but current events kicked off in December 2013 when Sunni jihadist militants seized the central city of Falluja and parts of nearby Ramadi.
Backed by local Sunni tribesmen, the jihadists exploited widespread anger among Sunni Arabs, who accuse Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri Maliki of discriminating against them and monopolising power.
Six months later, they launched an assault on Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, to the north. Thirty-thousand soldiers dropped their weapons and fled when confronted by an estimated 800 militants. Emboldened, the jihadists advanced southwards, towards the capital.
Who’s behind the offensives?
The assaults on Iraq’s towns and cities have been led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an al-Qaeda breakaway. Five years ago the US said the group was “on the verge of a strategic defeat”. Today, it carries out almost daily bombings in Baghdad and controls territories stretching for hundreds of miles through western and northern Iraq and into Syria, where it aspires to establish an Islamic state.
However the brutal tactics of ISIS’s fighters and the extreme interpretation of Islamic law they have imposed on areas under their control have so alienated rebel groups in Syria that they have joined forces to expel them. ISIS has even proven too much for al-Qaeda’s central leadership, which disavowed the group in February. Despite the backlash, ISIS grows ever stronger.
Although ISIS numbers only an estimated few thousand fighters, they are hugely bolstered in Iraq by support from possibly thousands of former officers and soldiers of the Iraqi army which was dissolved by the US after its defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Isn’t the Iraqi army big enough to deal with them?
Iraqi security forces
The Iraqi government is believed to command about 930,000 US-trained and US-armed security personnel, including 270,000 soldiers, so on paper they ought to be able to easily overcome a militant group whose supporters say has at least 15,000 fighters.
However, the same might have been said after Falluja fell. Troops have since become increasingly disillusioned by the grinding conflict and ISIS’s ferocious attacks – from suicide bombings to beheadings and crucifixions – leading many to desert. The security forces are also said to have been steadily weakened by sectarian tensions, abuses and corruption.
Is this linked to what’s going on in Syria?
The turmoil in Syria has undoubtedly destabilised Iraq. After initially staying on the sidelines, Iraqis are now fighting on both sides of the three-year-old conflict inside its western neighbour.
Mr Maliki’s Shia-dominated government denies supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a member of the heterodox Shia Alawite sect – but analysts say it has turned a blind eye to the flow of weapons and fighters to Syria from Iran, Mr Assad’s staunchest ally, and Iraq’s Shia heartland.
Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have openly supported Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels, providing weapons, ammunition, shelter and manpower. ISIS sent money and experienced militants to Syria, before joining the rebellion itself in 2013. It has since established strongholds on both sides of the porous border, moving recruits and resources between them, and adding another dimension to the crisis.
Is it all about religion?
For more than 1,000 years, Iraq has served as a battleground for many of the events that have defined the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
In recent decades, the dominance of Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs and their persecution of the Shia majority only served to stoke sectarian tensions.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein gave the Shia an opportunity to seek redress.
Though religious divisions have been a major catalyst of the violence, many argue that blaming sectarianism alone overstates the case.
Ethnic conflict has contributed to the instability, with Kurds and Arabs both claiming control of oil-rich Kirkuk.
Political groups have also played an important role, with Iraqis subscribing to a broad spectrum of ideologies and affiliations.
Will world powers get involved?
The US has said ISIS is “a threat to the entire region” and President Barak Obama is looking at all options – including military ones – to help the Iraqi government. However, officials have insisted he is not contemplating sending US troops back to Iraq.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has denounced ISIS as “barbaric” and warned that his country will not tolerate “this violence and terror”.
Turkey has warned that it will retaliate if any of its 80 citizens recently seized by ISIS in northern Iraq – including security personnel, diplomats and children – are harmed.