Decoding Iraq: What you need to know about the conflict

We break down the key issues

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In Iraq, government troops have been fighting for three weeks against Islamic militants, and thousands of Iraqi civilians have died.  President Barack Obama has promised 300 military advisers and another 300 troops to help secure the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the airport.

Here at DecodeDC, we’ve put together a primer to help you better understand the current crisis in Iraq.  Much has happened in recent days, and we’ll continue to update this post as the situation in Iraq continues to develop.

Q: I thought the war in Iraq was over, what is this current fighting about?

A: While the United States withdrew all of its troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, fighting there never really stopped. In fact, last year was the deadliest since 2008. Tensions between the majority Shiites, who lead the country, and the minority Sunnis never went away.

The insurgent group, alternatively known as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or ISIS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-sham), is taking advantage of growing discontent among Sunnis toward Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, which they accuse of discrimination.

The other big factor fueling this current fighting has to do with Iraq’s troubled neighbor, Syria, which is still in the midst of a civil war. Mostly Sunni rebels are trying to oust a regime dominated by members of a Shiite sect. ISIL fighters have been active in that conflict and taking advantage of the breakdown of state authority. Militants control territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border and are able to move back and forth between the two countries.

Q: Who exactly is this ISIL – I never heard of them?

A: Whether it called the  Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the name refers to the group's stated goal of restoring a medieval Islamic state, or caliphate, in Iraq and Greater Syria, also known as the Levant — traditional names for a region stretching from southern Turkey to Egypt on the eastern Mediterranean. Obama has referred to ISIL as a ‘vicious’ terrorist organization.

ISIL was formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and was the leading Islamist extremist group during the Iraq War. It was renamed to reflect its growing ambitions in Syria and Lebanon. The group controlled large parts of Iraq during the war until the U.S. military and Sunni militias defeated it during the post-2006 "surge." This past February, the group was thrown out of Al-Quaeda for being too violent.

Q: The ISIL has announced the establishment of a caliphate, what is that?

A: A caliphate is a Muslim empire. It's led by a caliph, who is a political and religious leader who is a successor (caliph) to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. His power and authority is absolute.  A caliphate is an institution first created in the 7th century after the death of the prophet Muhammad.  It’s a term used to describe empires like that of the Ottomans in Turkey in the 15th to 20th centuries, as well as those that did rule much of the civilized world in the early days of Islam.

Q: Does this announcement  actually change anything?

A: A few things – mostly on the propaganda side. ISIL says its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the caliph and "leader for Muslims everywhere" and that the group would now be known as the Islamic State. It also said that all other jihadi organizations are void and under al-Baghdadi’s control.

Q: How much territory do they now control?

A: Since capturing Iraq's second largest city of Mosul last month, ISIL has moved south towards Baghdad, seizing a number of towns and military bases on the way. Most recently, ISIS took control of three more towns in western Iraq  - strengthening the militant’s control along the Syrian border and in the country’s geographically largest province of Anbar.

Q: Do they plan to extend their reach beyond Iraq and Syria?

A: The recent territorial gains put ISIL within easy reach of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Reports that militant fighters had also seized a crossing post on the border with Jordan could not be independently confirmed. ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has called on Muslims to immigrate to the "Islamic State," saying it was a duty. "Rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis."






Source: The Long War Journal




Q: How is the Iraqi government responding?

A: The Iraqi army staged a big offensive in Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein, but they could not retake the city.  Iraqi government officials have reported that Russian experts had arrived in the country to help the army get 12 new Russian warplanes into the fight against militants.

Q: Who are the groups at loggerheads in Iraq?

A: The three major sects in Iraq are the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.  Sunni and Shiite Muslims share many beliefs and most of their practices coincide with one another: the belief of one God, the Prophet Muhammad, fasting during Ramadan and the other basic principles of the religion.

The split dates back to 632, the death of Muhammad and who should take over as leader. The majority, who became known as the Sunnis, backed Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet and father of his wife Aisha. Others thought the Prophet had anointed Ali, his cousin and son-in-law—they became known as the Shia, a contraction of "shiaat Ali", the partisans of Ali. Abu Bakr’s backers won out, and today 80% of the worlds Muslims are Sunnis.

The Kurds are a largely Sunni Muslim, non- Arabic people with their own language and culture. Most live in mountainous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria –generally known as Kurdistan ("Land of the Kurds").

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, Shiites make up about 50 percent of the Iraqi population. Neighboring Iran has the largest Shiite population in the world-between 90% and 95% of Iranian Muslims identified themselves as Shiites.

Kurds make-up about 15% of the remaining population and control about a fifth of the Iraq’s territory in the northern part of the country.

Q: What do Iraqi politics look like now?

A: Pretty messy.  An attempt at putting together a national unity government failed when Sunnis and Kurds walked out of the first session of Iraq’s new parliament. There’s a lot of bad history to overcome. During the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Sunnis dominated the political regime, persecuting and excluding Shiites and Kurds.

The overthrow of the regime and the arrival of U.S. forces brought with it a political upheaval in the country. Kurds gained autonomous control of the northern part of the region, which includes the oil fields around the city of Kirkuk—a prime source of potential wealth.

The Maliki government brought Shiites into control of the government for the first time but the prime minister has refused to strike an inclusive tone and include Sunnis. Both the Sunnis and the Kurds reject Maliki’s leadership.

Q: What is Iran’s role in all of this?

A: Both Iran and the United States have pledged support for the government in Baghdad.  Iran’s deputy foreign minister said his country had not received any requests for weapons from Baghdad but was ready to support them if asked.

Ellen Weiss, Amarra Ghani, Elizabeth Scheltens and Marc Georges contributed to this post.

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