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
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, he 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 happened in the militant insurgency?
-- MAP: AFP
In June, an al-Qaeda splinter group called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), 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. When the radical Islamist fighters stormed the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar in early August, 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 ISIS fighters seek to establish a Sunni caliphate stretching from Syria to Baghdad.
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 and formed the ISIS. It 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. 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 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.
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
Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, Shabak and other people have been displaced and have little prospect of returning home any time soon.
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.
"It's a catastrophe, a tragic situation," said Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of the northern city of Kirkuk.
Eyewitnesses in Qaraqosh said ISIS militants took down crosses in churches and burnt religious manuscripts.
Pope Francis has made an impassioned appeal to the international community to do much more to address the crisis.
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.
Yazidi refugees, meanwhile, were trapped in the mountains after fleeing the town of Sinjar.
6. 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
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 kill them.
"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.
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
US President Barack Obama announced on Aug 7, 2014 that he had authorised limited air strikes to protect US citizens in Erbil and Baghdad and, if necessary, to break the siege of the tens of thousands of refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar. A day later, US warplanes struck Sunni militant positions in northern Iraq, the first significant American military operation since ground troops left Iraq in 2011
US military aircraft also dropped food and water to Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar.
After a week of air strikes, Obama said they had broken the siege on Mount Sinjar but the US would continue with the attacks.
“We helped save many innocent lives. Because of these efforts, we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain and it’s unlikely we’re going to need to continue humanitarian air drops on the mountain,” Obama said.
The Pentagon said 4,000 to 5,000 Yazidis remained on the mountain, which they hold to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark, but explained that 2,000 “reside there and may not want to leave”.
Sources: AFP, REUTERS, USA Today, Vox, BBC, CNN
This article was first published on Aug 8, 2014, and updated on Aug 15, 2014.