WHAT IS ISIL?
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant 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, and on June 29 they proclaimed the territory they control to be an "Islamic State."
ARE THEY THE SAME AS ISIS?
Yes. The group is sometimes called 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. Since declaring themselves a caliphate, they have also begun calling themselves simply the "Islamic State."
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.
ISIL launched a major assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, on June 10. Since then, it has advanced farther south toward Baghdad, displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees and killing hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and police.
WHY HASN'T IRAQ STOPPED THEM?
Iraq’s mostly Shia army faces pervasive problems with corruption, and sectarian divisions have made Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-led government widely unpopular. Confronted with ISIL’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.
WHAT ARE IRAQ’S KURDS DOING?
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 fighters, or peshmerga, have capitalized on ISIL’s advance by taking over the city of Kirkuk, whose oil reserves and pipelines would be a game-changing asset for a potential sovereign Kurdish entity. The Kurds have also given refuge to Iraqi Christians fleeing the ISIL-controlled regions of the country.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN TO IRAQ?
ISIL’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.
With reports from Associated Press, Reuters, Patrick Martin and Mark Mackinnon
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