THE FRONT PAGES of many international newspapers proclaimed the end of the ‘American dream’ in Iraq this morning after a relatively small group of militants created a crisis of unprecedented proportions in the war-torn country.
It’s been many years since the US invasion brought Iraq to the forefront of all news bulletins and in the intervening years since 2003, the conflict has faded out of our consciousness.
However, events of the past 96 hours will have set alarm bells off across the world.
The timeline has been so quick that it’s caught the US administration off guard, nevermind the ordinary citizen. So, here’s a play-by-play explainer of what’s been happening.
Why is Iraq back in the news?
In a startlingly effective offensive, a group of Sunni militants – part of a splinter group of al-Qaeda – are moving towards Baghdad and, crucially, the country’s largest oil refineries.
That, obviously, has both the Iraq government and Western powers worried.
When did this start?
This specific wave of violence began on Monday in the country’s second largest city, Mosul.
The group, called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), took the airport, the TV stations and the governor’s office. They also helped 1,000 prisoners escape during the overnight operation.
It was the unbelievable speed of the victory that shocked those within and onlookers from outside the area, ensuring that Iraq was catapulted back onto our television sets.
But how did that happen?
Although there are only a few thousand militants total involved in the Sunni group, it has been reported that members of the Iraq army fled their posts and abandoned their weapons as soon as they appeared.
There were also incidents witnessed of officers giving militants their arms and their uniforms, fueling suspicions of a conspiracy within Iraq’s forces.
Reports indicate that up to 30,000 soldiers ran away in the face of only 800 fighters.
What’s happened since?
Yesterday, the city of Tikrit was overran by ISIS. This is particularly important as it was the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
Who are ISIS?
They are a breakaway group of al-Qaeda. And are thought to be even more extreme than those origins suggest.
ISIS (or sometimes ISIL) came into being in the early wars of the Iraq War.
They want to establish an Islamic state, taking in the entire region and imposing Sharia law throughout. It has already achieved the latter in some towns in Syria where women now wear niqabs and music is banned.
Its membership is made up of fighters from all over, including Chechnya, Turkey, parts of Europe and other Arab countries.
Its targets? The Iraq and Syrian governments. But there have also been thousands of civilian casualties at their hands.
ISIS has warned that it will continue its offensive, moving towards Baghdad. Today, it took another town -Dhuluiyah – which is located just hours away from the capital.
Its spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani also said the group would destroy the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, which is visited by million of pilgrims from around the world each year.
There has been talk about Kirkuk as well?
Yes, with the militants closing in on Baghdad, forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region took control of Kirkuk, an ethnically divided northern city they have sought to rule for decades against the objections of successive governments in Baghdad.
The city is known for its oil.
What’s the death toll?
No official figures from the violence have been confirmed but there were reports today of 14 injuries in Kirkuk.
A news photographer, Kamran Najm Ibrahim, was also killed while covering the fighting between the jihadists and Kurdish forces.
Does this have anything to do with religion?
Sadly, yes. There is a significant sectarian element to the fighting, despite the fact that both factions share many common beliefs.
Currently, the government is a Shiite one but the militants are Sunnis. (Al-Qaeda members are Sunnis).
About 85 per cent of the Muslim world is Sunni. The divide – which dates back to the death of Islam’s found in 632 – is one of the driving factors for many conflicts across the Middle East.
What about the American troops?
America’s troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. Many commentators have said this left a power and security vacuum in Iraq. One that has been filled by these extremists.
The US had spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq’s new security forces but this, in the words of the Foreign Minister Hosyhar Zebari, has simply melted away.
What does America have to say?
Not that much, yet. President Barack Obama says his security team are “looking at all the options” and “not ruling out anything” – except for sending in ground troops.
Iraq is going to need more help from us and it’s going to need more help from the international community.
However, he did warn the Shiite-led Iraq government that the jihadist offensive was a “wake-up call”.
The White House tonight confirmed the US is mulling the use of drones, rather than ground troops if military intervention is deemed appropriate.
Russia has used the opportunity to kick the Bush-led administration and the Blair government in the UK their pointless invasion in 2003.
The events in Iraq illustrate the total failure of the adventure involving the United States and Britain.
In a very rare event, Iran are with the US and have pledged more money to Iraq as they voiced dismay at the advance of the Sunni extremists.
And the UN Security Council is holding a private meeting today to discuss developments, but there hasn’t been an official statement yet.
What’s happening to children in Iraq?
About 500,000 people have fled their homes in the city of Mosul, which was taken by the militants on Monday.
According to Unicef, about half of those are children who are now in need of urgent need of safe water, shelter, food and protection.
“They cannot wait,” says Peter Power of Unicef Ireland.
Thousands of children are currently in schools, hospitals and mosques outside the city.
Is more money needed?
The US has pledged more aid but Unicef says that emergency appeals for Iraq were only 16 per cent funded before the violence erupted.
“This is an emergency on top of an emergency in Iraq – coming on the heels of other internal displacements of children and families in Anbar, as well as Syrian refugees in the north,” said Marzio Babille, the charity’s representative in Iraq.
So, is there a state of emergency?
No. And that really underlines the parallel political problems in Iraq. The Prime Minister tried to declare a state of emergency today but not enough MPs turned up for the session.
With reporting by AFP; First published 7.30pm