Cheatsheet: Back to basics on what's happening in Iraq right now.

Militants from the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) have now seized control of four towns in western Iraq, as well as every major border crossing between Syria and Iraq.

On Saturday, ISIS fighters came out of Syria to capture the last major border crossing still held by the Iraq government, and destroyed government forces in the attack. ISIS is now in control of large parts of both Syria and Iraq.

There are concerns now that the Iraqi government may be on a brink of collapse.

Previously, Mamamia reported… 

Iraq is in the news again, with a civil war threatening to destabilise the region once more.

Things have changed a bit since the last time the world was talking about entering Iraq. The government is different, the insurgent groups are different, and next-door neighbours Syria are substantially less stable.

The newspapers are covering the escalating conflict in detail today but we thought we’d take you back a few steps and just re-cap how we got here in the first place.

Here are the answers to the most common questions the world has been asking in the past week.

I stopped paying attention to Iraq sometime between the West entering in 2003 and when Australia pulled the troops out… what’s been going on there since then?

The West pulled the last of their troops out in late 2011. Very soon after, there was a dispute in Iraq’s – Shiite majority – Parliament over whether the Sunni people were being discriminated against in policy. In early 2012, the Vice President – a Sunni – fled to Kurdistan (a semi-autonomous region in the north where there are lots of Sunnis) after the Shiite government accused him of a sectarian death squad.

Since then, sectarian violence has been escalating, largely from the Sunni side of things, who feel marginalised by the Shiite government.

Could we just go over the whole Sunni/Shiite thing really quickly?

Sure. Sunni and Shiite are the two major denominations of Islam. Their religious beliefs are a bit different, because they believe in different lines of succession from Mohammad.

While Sunnis are the dominant denomination on a global scale, Iraq is one of the few countries that has a Shiite majority (estimated to be around 60-65 per cent). Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Muslim, and so were most of Iraq’s modern rulers prior to the 2003 Iraq War. Now the government is majority Shiite.

(Also, there is no difference between Shia, Shiite and Shi’ite. They all mean the same group.)

What’s happened in the past few days?

An insurgent group has seized a large section of northern Iraq. They are now heading south, with the intention of taking Baghdad.

Who exactly are these insurgents? Are they linked to al-Qaeda?

The group is called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). (We will use ISIL from now on.) They are a jihadist militant group. This means they are a group which views the Islamic concept of jihad (“struggle”) as justifying armed attacks. Jihadism is a fundamentalist position, and one that has gathered a significant extremist following. It really came to prominence during the terrorist activities of al-Qaeda.


The ISIL are an al-Qaeda breakaway group. They pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, but al-Qaeda cut ties in February following a prolonged power struggle in the group. Despite this, the ISIL are backed by lots of Saddam Hussein’s affiliates.

The ISIL’s aim is to create an anti-Shiite state across the territory of Iraq and the Levant (which includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and some of Turkey). While it is ridiculously unlikely they will actually establish a state across the whole of the Levant, they already have a significant foothold in Syria, and with Iraq now falling, there is significant concern about smaller Middle Eastern states, such as Lebanon.

Wait – Syria? I thought we were talking about Iraq?

The ISIL were established in response to the Iraq War, but their work really started in Syria where they have claimed a large chunk of north-eastern Syria. This part of Syria conveniently shares a border with the part of Iraq they have seized in the past few days.

Doesn’t Iraq have security forces? Why aren’t they fighting the ISIL?

When the ISIL took Iraqi territory over the past few days, their 800 men defeated Iraq’s 30,000. This is basically because the security forces in the Sunni majority regions they claimed in the north were most likely Sunnis, which means that they hate the government as much as the ISIL does.

I read that Iran is helping the Iraqi government. Don’t those two countries hate one another?

Iran is also a predominantly Shiite nation, so while they haven’t been too friendly with Iraq in the past, they sympathise with the current Iraqi government because they have also faced Sunni insurgencies. Iran’s foreign minister has offered their support to Iraq, to stop the ISIL taking Baghdad.

How is the rest of the world responding?


US President Barack Obama has said that the US will not involve itself in the conflict on the ground in Iraq, without the express consent and sincere effort by Iraqi leaders to promote stability. Speaking on Friday, Obama said: “We will not be sending troops back into combat in Iraq… any action that we may take… has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability, and account for the legitimate interests of all Iraq’s communities.”

However, this doesn’t mean that the US are ruling out involvement. Air strikes are still on the cards as a potential use of force against the ISIL.The US also recently delivered 300 Hellfire missiles, millions of rounds of small arms fire, thousands of rounds of tank ammunition, machine guns and other weapons for the Iraqi security forces.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that he had “not ruled out” military action alongside the US, if it is pursued.