WHO ARE THEY?
The Islamic State is a Sunni militant group whose goal is to build a medieval-style Islamic state, or caliphate, spanning the borders of Iraq and Syria. It has seized a large chunk of Syrian and northern Iraqi territory since early June. On June 29 they proclaimed the territory they control to be an "Islamic State," which is now used as a synonym for the group itself.
ARE THEY THE SAME AS ISIL AND ISIS?
Yes. They used to be called ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or sometimes ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) due to different translations of the group’s Arabic name. Sham can mean “greater Syria” or “the Levant,” a traditional name for the eastern Mediterranean region that includes Syria.
WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the group, then called the Islamic State in Iraq, fought U.S. forces as the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now styles himself Caliph Ibrahim, the group split with al-Qaeda’s global leadership in 2013 by moving into Syria’s civil war – against the wishes of Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri – and violently displacing al-Qaeda’s main affiliate there, the Nusra Front.
After aligning themselves with Sunni tribes in eastern Syria, they muscled into the fight against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad before turning to battling more moderate rebels for control of territory, exploiting the anti-Assad funding and weapons coming in from the Sunni Arab rulers of the Gulf.
ISIL's first major assault in Iraq was on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, on June 10. Since then, it has cemented control over a large swath of Iraq's north, displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees and killing hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and police.
WHO ARE THEY FIGHTING?
- Iraqi forces: Iraq's mostly Shia army and sectarian militia groups have fought to retake northern cities from the Islamists, including Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.
- Kurds: The Kurds are an ethnic group spanning parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and northern Iraq, where Iraqi Kurds have a partly autonomous regional government. Kurdish peshmerga fighters have made important gains in fighting the Islamists, helping to recapture the strategic Mosul Dam. Kurdish territory has become a haven of relative safety for Christian refugees fleeing the Islamists' advance.
- Religious minorities: Islamic State fighters believe non-Sunnis to be apostates, and religious minorities in areas conquered by the group have faced a stark choice to convert or be killed - a threat the Islamists have enforced with crucifixions and beheadings. The Yazidis, a Kurdish minority whose religion is derived from Zoroastrianism, have borne an especially heavy humanitarian toll, fleeing in the thousands and enduring a days-long siege on Sinjar mountain.
- United States: U.S. President Barack Obama approved targeted air strikes in Iraq on Aug. 7, assisting Kurdish and Iraqi forces with missile attacks on the militants. On Aug. 19, a video purporting to be from the Islamic State showed the grisly execution of American journalist James Foley, who was killed in retaliation for the U.S. air strikes.
- Western allies: Several of Iraq's Western allies have pledged military assistance to the Kurds and provided millions in humanitarian aid. Canada's contribution has included two planes to deliver weapons and ammunition to Kurdish forces.
WHY HASN'T IRAQ STOPPED THEM YET?
The Iraqi army faces pervasive problems with corruption, and sectarian divisions have made Iraq's Shia-led government widely unpopular. Confronted with the Islamic State’s brutal tactics – in one case, reportedly massacring up to 1,700 Iraqi soldiers and burying them in mass graves – morale has been low and, in several cases, Baghdad’s troops have abandoned their posts.
Dissatisfaction with Baghdad's response to the crisis cost Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki his job in August, as Iraq's coalition picked Haider al-Abadi to replace him.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN TO IRAQ?
The Islamic State's advance has renewed discussion about whether Iraq and Syria’s colonial boundaries will fall apart. This could split Iraq along religious and ethnic lines into three separate regions or even countries: Shia in the south and east, Sunni in the west and part of the north, and Kurdish in the northern areas including Kirkuk and Erbil.
The Kurds have already capitalized on Iraq's upheaval by taking over the city of Kirkuk, whose oil reserves and pipelines would be a game-changing asset for a potential sovereign Kurdish entity. Efforts to sell this oil has put the Kurds at odds with Baghdad, which has resisted what it calls smuggling of the oil out of Iraq.
With reports from Associated Press, Reuters, Patrick Martin and Mark Mackinnon
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