MAUREEN DOWD

A new war in Iraq with whatstheirname

Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence, walk on the outskirts of Sinjar, west of Mosul, August 5, 2014. Tens of thousands fled the weekend assault on Sinjar and are now surrounded, according to witnesses and the United
Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence, walk on the outskirts of Sinjar, west of Mosul, August 5, 2014. Tens of thousands fled the weekend assault on Sinjar and are now surrounded, according to witnesses and the United Nations, after the Sunni militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on Kurdish forces who had held towns in the area for years. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

It was exhilarating to drop a bunch of 200kg bombs on whatstheirname. Just when Americans thought they could stop trying to figure out the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites, we're in a new war in Iraq with some bad "folks", as the President might say, whose name we're still fuzzy on.

We never know what we're getting into over there, and this time we can't even agree what to call the enemy. All we know is that a barbaric force is pillaging so swiftly and brutally across the Middle East that it seems like some mutated virus from a sci-fi film.

Most news organisations call the sulphurous spawn of Al-Qaeda leading the rampage through Iraq "ISIS", short for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham. Yet the White House, State Department and the United Nations refer to the group as "ISIL", short for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Al-Sham, the BBC noted, can be translated as the Levant, Greater Syria, Syria or Damascus. The BBC reported that some people have also started referring to the jihadists as "Da'ish" or "Daesh". Adding to the confusion, ISIS aka ISIL engaged in a slick rebranding in June, announcing that, in tribute to its ambition to establish a caliphate, it was renaming itself "the Islamic State".

It's a bit odd that the US administration is using "the Levant", given that it conjures up a colonial association from the early 20th century, when Britain and France drew their maps, carving up Mesopotamia guided by economic gain rather than tribal allegiances. Unless it's a nostalgic nod to a time when puppets were more malleable and grateful to their imperial overlords.

If all that is not confusing enough, we also have to fathom a new entry in the vicious religious wars in Iraq: the Yazidis, a small and secretive sect belonging to one of the oldest surviving religions in the world. Their faith has origins in Islam and Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the 6th century BC. As Time magazine pointed out, though the name "Izidis" translates to "worshippers of God", ISIS considers them "devil worshippers" who must convert to Islam or be killed.

ISIS mistakenly torments the sect that has survived 72 genocides, The Telegraph explained, because the Yazidis worship a fallen angel called the Malek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel. Fifty thousand Yazidis were driven by the jihadists to take refuge on Mount Sinjar in Kurdish-controlled Erbil, where they were trapped and dying of dehydration and exposure, which spurred President Barack Obama to order Navy planes to drop food and water for them.

Although it felt momentarily bracing to see American pilots trying to save innocents in a country we messed up so badly that it's not even a country any more, some critics warned that the pinprick bombings were a political gesture, not a military strategy, and "almost worse than nothing", as Senator John McCain put it.

The latest turn of the screw in Iraq also underscored how we keep getting pulled back, Godfather-style, without ever understanding the culture. Our boneheaded meddling just creates ever more virulent monsters. The US has taken military action in Iraq during at least 17 of the last 24 years, the ultimate mission creep in a country smaller than Texas.

What better symbol of the Middle East quicksand than the fact that Navy planes took off for their rescue mission - two years after Mr Obama declared the war in Iraq over - from the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea? Bush Senior's war to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait would not have been necessary if Saddam, a tyrant first enabled by JFK's CIA, had not been given the wrong signals by our side.

Caught in the Sunni backlash and the back draft of his predecessor's misguided attempt to impose democracy, Mr Obama is leery and proceeding cautiously. But what can he do? He has dispatched a few hundred advisers to Iraq to fix something that couldn't be fixed with the hundreds of thousands of troops over a decade. Some fellow Democrats are fretting that the pull of Iraq will be too strong, after Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said: "The President has not laid out a specific end date."

Iraq, after all, is a country that seems to have a malignant magnetism for our leaders.

NEW YORK TIMES