What's Happening in Iraq and What May Come Next, Explained

In the past week, Al Qaeda-connected Islamic militants have attacked multiple cities across Iraq and are rapidly consolidating power in the nation that the United States spent so much blood and treasure trying to stabilize. The situation is dire and dynamic. Here's some of what we know.

What's happening now?

Radical Sunni insurgents fighting under the umbrella of "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" on Tuesday took control Mosul, the largest city in Iraq's north, and have quickly overrun several other key cities including oil-rich Baiji and Tikrit, the home of dead dictator Saddam Hussein. ISIS rebels have also contested several other cities in the west of Iraq, consolidating power in areas where Sunni Muslims are predominant.

The situation is pretty extreme, as this New York Times map of the battlespace indicates the insurgents are closing in on Baghdad, the capital:

What's Happening in Iraq and What May Come Next, Explained


It's not just Iraq, either, as ISIS continues to battle dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and has also launched attacks against anti-Assad rebels in Syria and Turkey whom they believe are not true Muslims committed to their political goals. In short, the jihadi group is trying to establish a real Islamic militant state to go with its name, without regard for Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish borders.

Who are these "Al Qaeda types" taking over the country, anyway?

In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the rise of an anti-American insurgency, Al Qaeda in Iraq formed out of a core of conservative Sunni religious fighters who pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden's organization. Over the years, it merged with other militant groups who shared its theological outlook, trying in 2006 to establish an Islamic State of Iraq in the mainly Sunni west of the country.

The U.S. and Iraqi government repelled the Islamists' advances, often by forming alliances with more moderate Sunni leaders. But the U.S. withdrawal and the raging civil war in neighboring Syria emboldened the remaining jihadists, who formed a reconstituted group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (as Syria's also known)—ISIL or ISIS.

Amazingly, ISIS is too extreme even for Al Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed, found that he couldn't keep ISIS and its murderous ambitions in check, and he took the remarkable move of renouncing the group in February: ISIS, Zawahiri's command said, "is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group... does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions."

ISIS's rebels are nothing if not ambitious, as the current lightning campaign shows. They are also social media-savvy shit-talkers, documenting (and perhaps exaggerating) their triumphs in real time:

But for all that short-term military savvy, ISIS militants are downright medieval in their outlook. Most secular Muslims would derisively refer to them as takfiri—religious zealots. Here are some of the rules they have reportedly imposed on the people of Nineveh since capturing the province, which includes Mosul:

  • "For women, dress decently and wear wide clothes. Only go out if needed."
  • "Our position on Shrines and graves is clear. All to be destroyed basically."
  • "Gatherings, carrying flags (other than that of Islamic State) and carrying guns is not allowed. God ordered us to stay united."
  • "For the police, soldiers and other Kafir institutions, you can repent. We opened special places that will allow you to repent."
  • "No drugs, no alcohol and no cigarettes allowed."
  • "We warn tribal leaders and Sheikhs not to work with government and be traitors."
  • "We ask all Muslims to perform prayers on time in the mosques."
  • "Money we took from Safavid government is now public. Only Imam of Muslims can spend it. Anyone who steals hand will be cut."
  • "For those asking who are you? We are soldiers of Islam and took on our responsibility to bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate."
  • "People you tried secular rulings (Republic, Baathist, Safavids) and it pained you. Now it is time for Islamic State Imam Abu Bakr El Qurashi."

Why are the jihadis making it look so easy?

Part of it is because Sunnis in Iraq aren't resisting much. They're letting the jihadis take over, not because they especially like a hardcore religious state, but because they consider it preferable to the treatment that they've gotten from the Iraqi government.

Nouri al-Maliki, the longtime prime minister of Iraq, leads a coalition of Shi'ite Muslim Iraqis who are friendly with their Iranian co-religionists and deeply suspicious of the nation's Sunni minority, who enjoyed power and persecuted Shi'ites under Saddam's old regime. Maliki has a reputation for screwing Sunnis politically, financially and physically, including those who worked with the U.S. coalition. In fact, a recent New Yorker piece by longtime Iraq correspondent Dexter Filkins suggests that when the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, American commanders wanted a continued presence in the country not to fight insurgents, but to restrain Maliki from launching an all-out Sunni-Shi'ite conflict similar to the 2006 civil war.

Under those conditions, many Sunnis in Iraq have chosen to let the jihadis boot out the Shi'ite Baghdad forces in their territory. ISIS has also made clear that anyone who resists them will be killed with impunity, so there's little incentive to joining the government's resistance efforts.

Beyond that, the Iraqi police and army in the worst-hit areas have been routed or deserted.

Wait, the Iraqi army that the U.S. trained and equipped is blowing it?

Many of their number have deserted, and it's hard to blame them. Here's the lede of a New York Times report on their plight:

The infantryman and his colleagues were already worn down after six months of fighting militants in western Iraq, men flush with weapons and zeal. Army commanders had no answer for the daily deadly ambushes and no broader strategy for prevailing in the longer war.

The final straw was the death of a friend, killed two weeks ago by a sniper's bullet. The infantryman, Bashar al-Halbousi, deserted, making the same choice as hundreds of other soldiers in his battalion, he said.

"The state is weak," Mr. Halbousi said. "This will be an endless battle."

Faced with bleak prospects of victory, and the certainty of death in defeat, many of those underpaid forces have simply shed their weapons and uniforms and beat tracks for home.

The result has been disheartening, to say the least, for veterans of the American campaign in Iraq:

The fleeing troops left weapons, vehicles and even their uniforms behind, as militants took over at least five army installations and the city's airport. In a desperate bid to stem the losses, the military was reduced to bombing its own bases to avoid surrendering more weapons to the enemy. American officials who had asserted that the $14 billion that the United States had spent on the Iraqi security forces would prepare them to safeguard the country after American troops left were forced to ponder images from Mosul of militants parading around captured Humvees.

Here is a video by a jihadist purportedly of 4,500 marching Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to ISIS forces in Tikrit. The number looks chillingly on target.

Will the jihadis really take over Baghdad and the rest of the country?

That's unclear. Certainly the rhetoric from both sides right now indicates that ISIS will try to take over the capital. "The battle is not yet raging, but it will rage in Baghdad and Karbala," ISIS has said, referring to two of Iraq's most important cities to Shi'ite Muslims. That's good propaganda on their part, and a good opportunity for the Iraqi government to appeal for outside help.

But it's possible that ISIS might hunker down to consolidate power and legitimacy in the large, strategically important swath of territory it already controls. This notion has been suggested, among others, by regional scholar and founder of the respected "Jihadology" blog Aaron Y. Zelin:

If this is ISIS's strategy, Maliki and the Iraq government seem to be playing into it right now. Their first concern, understandably, is protecting Baghdad, and they've reportedly dug in at an old U.S. base in Taji, 20 miles north of the capital, to repel any ISIS siege. But though it might save the government, that mentality could also leave it without much territory to govern, and much space to negotiate.

What happens next?

One thing that seems sure to happen is that a lot of Iranians are going to end up in Iraq. Maliki's close relationship to Tehran, and his lack of better options, seems to have led him to accept security assistance from the better organized Iranian military. Two units of elite special forces have reportedly already come in from Iran and helped the Iraqi government take back some portion of Tikrit.

For the Iranians, this is not only a strategic move—it's good to be the power broker on the block—but a very emotional one. Two of the holiest shrines for Iran's Shi'ites are in Iraq, and their protection seems to play a very large part in Tehran's involvement.

That's cold comfort, however, for nearby Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel and the United States, none of whom are comfortable with an expansion of Iran's territorial and military sphere, no matter how effective it may be against Al Qaeda types.

So... what is the U.S. going to do, if anything?

The president can honor America's war-weariness and leave the problem to the Iraqis and the Iranians and the Kurds, who live in Iraq's northern region. The likely results could include: the long-term partitioning of Iraq into multiple states, one of which is controlled by radical Islamists; the fall of the entire country, its military, and its natural resources to ISIS; or the destruction of ISIS by an Iranian-led coalition, leaving Iran as the major player in the region. Any of those situations is likely to deepen an already-burgeoning humanitarian disaster—an explosion of deaths and refugeeism.

Alternatively, Obama could order airstrikes, which might be effective in breaking ISIS now that the group holds territory and is positioned out in the open. But that would be another domestically divisive military campaign with an open-ended commitment and no clear end game, as we had in Libya. Reports surfacing now say Iraq has asked for U.S. airpower for a month, and the U.S. has demurred. But never say never; it's possible the Obama administration could be waiting until the situation is so dire that American war fatigue is overcome by fears of an Islamic terror state in the Middle East.

Whose fault is this?

Everybody's. The Bush administration toppled Iraq's oppressive (but secular and nationalist) leader, and in so doing he gave "Al Qaeda in Iraq" a reason to exist and American soldiers to target, as one of the foremost U.S. scholars in international relations pointed out yesterday:

Obama's eagerness to put Iraq in the rearview may have helped accelerate the violence, particularly by giving Maliki a free hand to treat the country's Sunni minority neglectfully at best and brutally at worst. But it's hard to see how the current administration could have done differently, seeing as how strongly the U.S. electorate wanted its own troops withdrawn (and for good reasons).

Ultimately, Iraq was a religiously and ethnically fractious state held together for decades by a dictator with few qualms about killing enemies and making uneasy alliances. We untied the ribbon on this box of hell. Getting the ribbon back on has never really been an option.

Politically, America is already thoroughly and profoundly screwed, and another round of Iraq recriminations may kill off any hope for a functional government here at home in the foreseeable future. Much of the left and the right have grown isolationist; the crazy right, as ever, paradoxically wants a weak federal government but wants to smash Islamists to bits, and ISIS's successes are already being spun either as signs of Obama's weakness as a leader or proof of their fantasy that he's a closet Muslim trying to help the worldwide caliphate get its footing.

House Speaker John Boehner has said Obama's "taking a nap" on Iraq, and longtime hawk John McCain has called for the president's national security team to be sacked. Fellow national security hardliner Lindsey Graham is already hollering for bombings and complaining that if 10,000 or 15,000 U.S. troops were still in Iraq, none of this would have happened:

But of course, this is an election year, and should Obama call for air strikes, no matter how effective, the right would likely change tack again and attack him for an adventurist foreign policy—as it has in Libya and Afghanistan. The left, too, will be stuck wondering yet again how an agent of hope and change painted himself into a war-filled corner. Regardless of who's calling the shots—now, or in 2015 or 2017—America is divided and bound to be unhappy with whatever unpalatable options are actually pursued.

[Photo credit: AP Images]