In just over a week, an al-Qaida breakaway group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni insurgents have rapidly expanded their hold on vast swaths of territory in northern Iraq in a lightning advance that shows no signs of ebbing. The sharp deterioration in security has sent thousands fleeing to the relatively safe self-ruled Kurdish region. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has led the country since 2006, has been blamed by many for failing to promote reconciliation with the minority Sunnis. Even the Obama administration is weighing whether to press the Shiite prime minister to step down in a last-ditch effort to prevent disgruntled Sunnis from igniting a civil war.
A guide to the fast-moving events:
ON THE GROUND
Iraqi soldiers and helicopter gunships are battling Sunni militants for control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, a facility that extends over several square miles of desert in Beiji, northeast of Baghdad. The refinery, which normally produces about 300,000 barrels per day for domestic consumption, has been shut down. The assault began on June 10 when Sunni militants seized the northern city of Mosul, then swept through the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. They also took control of the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border.
SECTARIAN SECURITY FORCES
Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces have long faced complaints about sectarianism, with Sunni soldiers tending to serve in Sunni areas and police forces usually drawn from local populations. Most of the security forces in the north, for example, melted away as the insurgents advanced. However, the composition of the army and police forces is changing as mainly Shiite young men have rushed to join after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a call to arms to defend Shiite holy sites. Government forces also have linked up with Shiite militias and there already have been allegations of sectarian killings on both sides.
Al-Maliki expressed optimism in a televised address over what he called the rise by all of Iraq’s political groups to the challenge of defending the nation against the militant threat, but so far his outreach remains largely rhetorical, with no concrete action to bridge differences between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds. Al-Maliki was already fighting for his job. His political bloc recently won the most seats in parliamentary elections but failed to garner the majority needed to rule without a coalition, so he has not yet secured a third term. Allegations that his divisive rule is partly to blame for the current crisis have strengthened calls for him to step down.
The crisis is pushing the United States back into a military role in Iraq, nearly three years after it withdrew its forces after failing to reach agreement with al-Maliki’s government that would have allowed a residual force to remain. Obama said in a national address Thursday that he is dispatching up to 300 military advisers to help quell the insurgency. They would join up to 275 American forces providing security and support for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other American interests. The U.S. also has been considering airstrikes. Obama said he was leaving open the possibility of “targeted and precise military action” in the future. He said the U.S. also would increase its intelligence efforts in Iraq and create joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq.
Former members of Saddam’s ruling Baathist party and other supporters have re-emerged as players after years of operating largely underground and keeping low-profiles. Fighters loyal to Saddam’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and has eluded security forces ever since, were the main militant force in Tikrit, for example. Their involvement could escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an al-Qaida-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising. It also could have a moderating effect on the hard-liners and their extreme version of Islamic law.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has gained strength on both sides of the border by taking advantage of the increasingly sectarian dimension of the civil war next door in Syria, where mostly Sunni rebels are fighting to oust a government dominated by members of a Shiite sect. Militant fighters already easily cross the border between the two countries, and the insurgents appear to be trying to link territories that have fallen under their control on both sides of the border.
The crisis also is raising fears that a similar deterioration in security could occur in Afghanistan after the U.S. pulls out most of its soldiers as planned by the end of this year. Obama has said about 10,000 troops would stay in Afghanistan until the end of 2016. But some U.S. congressmen are questioning the wisdom of a definitive timetable amid fears that hard-fought gains could be wiped out by a resurgent Taliban.
Recent developments have renewed the possibility that Iraq be divided into three separate regions dominated by Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Kurds stand to be the biggest winners in that scenario as they gain control of disputed areas outside their territory that they have long sought to incorporate. Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga have grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk and moved into territory along the edges of their self-rule region. But they also face challenges, including defending borders and risking a backlash from other ethnic minorities. The United States and neighboring Turkey also oppose Kurdish independence.
The fighting is likely to increase Iran’s influence over neighboring Iraq. In a sign of the Islamic Republic’s deepening involvement, the commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force Gen. Ghasem Soleimani is helping Iraq’s military and Shiite militias gear up to fight the Sunni insurgents, officials have said. Tehran has a strong interest in seeing the government survive. Even the U.S. has made initial overtures to its long-time foe Iran now that they have a common enemy in the al-Qaida breakaway group.