US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he has authorised targeted airstrikes in Iraq to protect American personnel and help Iraqi forces. He also announced that the US would airlift emergency humanitarian aid into parts of the country.
Here are 8 things about the escalating crisis in Iraq:
1. How did the conflict begin?
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaks during a news conference after a meeting with speaker of parliament Salim al-Jabouri in Baghdad July 26, 2014 -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, took power in 2006 and largely left out many Sunnis from ascending in the political ranks, leaving religious strife as the centerpiece of this disagreement.
In the past, al-Maliki has also been criticised for his alleged "spoils system" approach in promoting his political allies to posts in the military. Many cite his regime and rapid promotion process as the chief reason behind an under-prepared Iraqi military after the withdrawal of all American troops in 2011.
2. What has happened so far?
-- MAP: AFP
In June, an al-Qaeda splinter group called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), apparently backed by other Sunni groups and fighters, carried out a series of city seizures and strikes in Iraq, capturing much of the northern Iraqi territory.
Armed with armoured vehicles and other military hardware taken from Iraqi forces, ISIS fighters have overrun Iraq's largest Christian town Qaraqosh and nearby villages.
When radical Islamist fighters stormed the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar over the weekend, the Yazidi minority who call it home fled into the surrounding mountains in fear of their lives.
3. Who are the militants?
Islamic State militants stand guard after controlling a headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Christian town of Bartella. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
The fighters are from the Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They seek to establish a Sunni caliphate stretching from Syria to Baghdad.
The group used to have a different name: Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
US troops and allied Sunni militias defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the post-2006 “surge” — but it didn't destroy them. In 2011, the group rebooted. ISIS successfully freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government and, slowly but surely, began rebuilding their strength.
ISIS and Al-Qaeda separated in February 2014. "Over the years, there have been many signs that the relationship between Al-Qaeda Central and the group's strongest, most unruly franchise was strained,” writes Barack Mendelsohn, a political scientist at Haverford College. Their relationship "had always been more a matter of mutual interests than of shared ideology."
According to Mendelsohn, Syria pushed that relationship to the breaking point. ISIS claimed that it controlled Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Al-Qaeda splinter in Syria, and defied orders from Al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to back off.
“This was the first time a leader of an Al-Qaeda franchise had publicly disobeyed” a movement leader, Mendelsohn says.ISIS also defied repeated orders to kill fewer civilians in Syria, and the tensions led to Al-Qaeda disavowing any connection with ISIS in a February communiqué.
Today, ISIS and Al-Qaeda compete for influence over Islamist extremist groups around the world. Some experts believe ISIS may overtake Al-Qaeda as the most influential group in this area globally. In fact, the rising popularity of ISIS has prompted Indonesia to denounce the group amid reports of young Indonesians being invited to rallies to pledge their allegiance to ISIS.
4. Who are the Yazidis?
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjarl west of Mosul, take refuge at Dohuk province. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
One main reason the US is preparing for possible airstrikes — and already planning to provide humanitarian aid — is that ISIS has treated Iraqi minority groups absolutely brutally during its advance.
This has included Christians and other groups, but in early August ISIS began threatening Iraq's Yazidi group, who are trapped in a horrifying plight.
The Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority with about 600,000 adherents worldwide. Yazidi religion is often described as a blend between Zoroastrianism and Islam, particularly mystical Sufi Islam, but ISIS calls them "devil-worshippers."
The largest concentration of Yazidis in the world is in northern Iraq, where ISIS recently made significant inroads — including into a heavily Yazidi town called Sinjar. ISIS has made special efforts to slaughter them.
In fleeing ISIS, between 10,000 and 40,000 Yazidis from Sinjar and nearby areas have taken refuge on Mount Sinjar, an adjacent mountain, where they do not have regular access to food or water. They are trapped between starvation and ISIS, which controls every road out.
"An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth," Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi MP in Iraq, said in a tearful floor speech, begging for the world to save them.
The planned humanitarian airdrops are explicitly designed to help the trapped Yazidis. Still, airdrops alone may not be enough. One analysis suggests that "24 C-130 transport aircraft flying round trips every day would be necessary to keep the Yazidi supplied with water" — and that doesn't even include food. It's possible that any airstrikes, as well, will be designed to break ISIS's siege of Mt. Sinjar.
Iraqi Christians are also victims of ISIS' march. On August 6th, ISIS took Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian town. The town of 50,000 has had limited access to food, power, and water since, and some Christians have been given the "choice" to convert to Islam or be killed.
5. What’s the humanitarian situation?
Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush, about 30 kilometres east of the northern province of Nineveh, eat upon their arrival at the Saint-Joseph church in the Kurdish city of Arbil, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, on August 7, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
As many as 100,000 Christians are believed to have fled their homes ahead of the ISIS advance, and most of them are thought to have gone towards the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, have been fighting the ISIS militants' advance in the area around Qaraqosh for weeks, but on Wednesday night it appeared they had abandoned their posts.
"It's a catastrophe, a tragic situation: tens of thousands of terrified people are being displaced as we speak," said Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of the northern city of Kirkuk.
Eyewitnesses in Qaraqosh said ISIS militants were taking down crosses in churches and burning religious manuscripts.
Pope Francis has made an impassioned appeal to the international community to do much more to address the crisis.
Last month, hundreds of Christian families fled nearby Mosul after the Islamist rebels gave them an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be executed.
Iraq is home to one of the world's most ancient Christian communities, but numbers have dwindled amid growing sectarian violence since the US-led invasion in 2003.
About 50,000 Yazidis, meanwhile, are thought to have been trapped in the mountains after fleeing the town of Sinjar over the weekend - although the UN says some of them have now been rescued.
Almost 200,000 civilians have been displaced from Sinjar town, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has warned.
Those trapped on the mountain are facing dehydration, and 40 children are reported to have died already.
6. Why the Iraqi army cannot defeat ISIS?
Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against militants of the Islamic State, gather together in the city of Baquba. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
The Iraqi army has 250,000 troops. ISIS has around 7,000. The Iraqi army has tanks, planes, and American training. ISIS has never fielded a tank or a plane and its troops didn't get formal training from an advanced military. Yet ISIS is demolishing the Iraqi army on the battlefield, seizing a massive swath of the country's northwest. Why?
It comes down to two things: training and professionalism. ISIS learned how to fight, while the Iraqi army has long been a weak fighting force. All the weapons in the world won't matter if you don't know how to wield them. And ISIS's victories, not to mention the Iraqi army's repeated failures, tell you a lot about the country's larger crisis.
How did the Iraqi army get this bad? One explanation is sectarianism: the Iraqi government is dominated by Shiite Muslims, whereas
ISIS and its allies are Sunnis. Perhaps Sunni soldiers in the mostly-Sunni northwest simply ran because they didn't want to fight for a Shiite government.
Another explanation is Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki significantly weakened the army. He replaced effective Sunni officers with Shiite ones and well-trained generals with loyalists. Analaysts say this was an attempt to protect his own political position. A strong, independent army could launch a coup d'etat. An army filled with your cronies is safer.
ISIS, on the other hand, has built up over the years. There has been an influx of skilled Saddam-era military leaders and soldiers into ISIS' ranks.
Acquiring lots of weapons, money, and experience over the course of the Syrian war allowed them to translate that new training into real military effectiveness.
7. What is the US doing to help Iraq?
Iraqi Yazidi families who fled the violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, are given food at a school where they are taking shelter in the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, on August 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
The US military aircraft has dropped food and water to members of the Yazidi religious minority community who were trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Officials had warned that the Yazidis faced starvation and dehydration if they remained on the mountain, and slaughter at the hands of the IS if they fled.
"The US cannot and should not intervene every time there is a crisis in the world," Mr Obama said.
But he said the US could not turn a "blind eye" to the prospect of violence "on a horrific scale", especially when the Iraqi government had requested assistance.
"We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide," he went on. "Today America is coming to help."
He said that US air strikes would target IS fighters, should the militants' convoys move toward Irbil, where there is a significant presence of US diplomats and military advisers, or threaten Baghdad.
In addition, he authorised strikes "if necessary" to help Iraqi government forces break the siege at Mount Sinjar and rescue the trapped civilians.
He added that the US could and should support moderate forces that could bring stability to Iraq, and he said there was no "American solution" to the turmoil plaguing Iraq.
8. Will there be another Iraq war?
US President Barack Obama talks about Iraq at White House in Washington. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
The potential escalation of US military involvement comes two years after Obama ended the Iraq war and brought home American forces.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Thursday that any potential US action in Iraq would be limited, with no chance of ground troops heading back.
Obama acknowledged that many Americans are concerned about military action in Iraq.
"As Commander in Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq, so as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq because there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq," Obama said.
Sources: USA Today, Vox, BBC, CNN