7 questions about what’s happening in Iraq you were too embarrassed to ask

By Jessica Huseman and Dana Lea
@JessicaHuseman, @DanaAnneLea
Aug. 14, 2014

Last week, the U.S. authorized and carried out airstrikes in Iraq for the first time since troops withdrew from the country in 2011. The situation is changing by the minute, and if you missed the extensive context for the strikes, the continuing coverage is probably more confusing than it is informative. And so, we present the six questions you probably wanted to ask someone, but didn’t because you were embarrassed.

Read on, and be informed.

1. Didn’t we send a bunch of people to Iraq in June? 

AFP Photo / Karim Sahib

AFP Photo / Karim Sahib

Yes. Last month, the U.S. sent more than 800 special operations troops to Iraq as advisors, whose mission was to advise Iraqi security forces (especially Kurds) as they fought back against the Islamic State. But, even with our good advice, the Kurds repeatedly requested assistance as it became clear that their forces were not strong enough to withstand the attacks. Advisors, though, are still useful as a on-the-ground, non-combat assistance, so the U.S. is about to send 130 more advisors to assist the Yazidi people.

2. What is the “Islamic State” — ISIS? ISIL? What am I supposed to call them?

ISIS flag

Good question. Journalists have been grappling with this, too. In short, the self-titled “Islamic State” came about as an offshoot of al-Qaeda after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the civil war that followed. The group is made up of a lot of different factions with a lot of different names, and has had a lot of different names since they rose to prominence in the area. The group officially changed its name to “Islamic State” (heretofore IS) in June. But before that, you would have seen them called the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Syria in English). But Sham is also frequently translated to Levant, so you may have also seen them called ISIL. The group became dominant in Syria in 2011 during the chaos of the civil war, and are funded by a lot of people who want to see Bashar al-Assad removed from power. After losing a bit of ground in Syria in the past several months, they regrouped and focused their attention on Iraq, which puts us where we are now.

3. So why are we dropping bombs now? Why not just humanitarian aid? 

Jets from the USS George H.W. Bush attacked militant targets in Iraq. US Navy handout/European Pressphoto Agency

Jets from the USS George H.W. Bush attacked militant targets in Iraq. US Navy handout/European Pressphoto Agency

On Aug. 7, President Obama announced that the U.S. would reengage in Iraq after nearly three years of inactivity. That night he authorized a two-fold operation in Iraq: airstrikes and humanitarian aid. The airstrikes were authorized to protect U.S. personnel in Erbil as IS forces moved in. The humanitarian airdrops contained food and water for the Yazidi to “prevent a potential act of genocide.”

As IS moved in on the Kurdish region, it became clear to the U.S. that the Kurds had neither the manpower nor the weaponry to withstand the jihadists. Obviously, we need to protect any U.S. personnel in the region, but Obama is clearly skirting around the fact that a) the Kurds are Western-friendly and b) the Kurds control 10 percent of Iraqi oil. The U.S. would like to keep an ally in the region and continue to keep even more oil out of the hands of IS, especially as they eye the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.

The U.S. and Iraqi militaries have been continuing to drop humanitarian aid and trying to evacuate the Yazidi on Mt. Sinjar. A bump in the road was hit Tuesday, however, when it was reported that one such Iraqi aid helicopter crashed, proving just how difficult of a feat this is. According to the Associated Press, it was the Syrian Kurdish forces that were actually successful in breaching the region and rescuing the helpless Yazidi. Meanwhile, the U.S. continued with military support to the outgunned Kurdish fighters through a Tuesday drone strike and provisions of weapon supplies.

4. Who are the Kurds anyway? 

Kurdish population centers / Congressional Research Service

Kurdish population centers. Congressional Research Service

Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region that was established in northern Iraq during the Gulf War and is run by the Kurdish regional government. The Kurdish people, a unique and mostly Sunni Muslim group, number about 40 million in a region that spans southern Turkey and northern Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Iraqi Kurdistan was dubbed “the Other Iraq,” and has been friendly with the West since its historical army, the peshmerga (or “those who face death”), joined with the CIA against Saddam Hussein in 2003. Kurdistan sealed its place internationally by being friendly with the West, maintaining a secure democracy (mostly due to ethnic homogeny), and garnering relative prosperity through the oil trade.

In June 2014, IS forced open the border between Syria and Iraq and scattered the Iraqi military. Kurdish forces took advantage of the chaos by seizing  Kirkuk, a top oil-producing region in the north. Iraqi Kurdistan seemed to enjoy being ignored by the state, just as the Syrian Kurds did when Basher al-Assad became too preoccupied fighting rebels in Syria to pay them any attention. However, in the past week, IS forces have made incursions into Kurdish territory, making their way towards Erbil.

5. Now that we know about the Kurds, who are the Yazidi?

Yazidi Men. Wikipedia Commons.

Yazidi Men. Wikipedia Commons.

Last week, reports began spread that IS forces had nearly 40,000 members of a small ethnic and religious minority in Iraq, the Yazidi, surrounded on Mt. Sinjar. Here’s how that happened: On Aug. 3, IS militants struck the Yazidi town of Sinjar in northwest Iraq. They threatened to kill any of the “devil worshipers” if they didn’t convert to Islam. According to The Guardian, about 130,000 fled to the Kurdish region and beyond into Turkey as refugees. The rest fled up Mt. Sinjar with few other options but to die of dehydration or face the murderous IS militants.

Most heavily reported by the media was a video released Aug. 6 of the Iraqi Yazidi Member of Parliament, Vian Dakhil, pleading with the speaker. He says, “We are being slaughtered under the banner of ‘there is no god but Allah’… Mr. Speaker my people are being slaughtered just as all Iraqis were slaughtered… I speak here in the name of humanity. Save us! Save us!” The video received swift international attention for its heartbreaking cry for help.

6. But, isn’t the American public really against re-invading Iraq? Why is Obama doing this? 

Iraq Poll

Yes.  A June Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 45 percent of Americans supported launching airstrikes against IS extremists in Iraq, and only 30 percent supported deploying ground troops. Other surveys have found that the majority of Americans also believe the U.S. does not have a responsibility to stop violence in the country. Protests are happening daily over the issue, and American opinion doesn’t seem to be shifting. Obama acknowledged how war-weary the American public is last week, saying, “I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq — even limited strikes like these. I understand that.” But he argued that the plight of the Yadizi demanded action. “They’re without food, they’re without water. People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide.” We recommend this Washington Post article if you are interested in the moral/political/etc. implications of military strikes in the country.

7. Is this going to work? 

White House Photo

White House Photo

Opinions about this are mixed at best, but we’ll try to break down the majority opinion for you. Limited airstrikes seem to already be effective against beating IS back, but it is very clear that airstrikes alone aren’t going to be effective in the long term. In order for Iraq to be truly stable, a lot of political reform will have to take place. The religious and ethic division in the current Iraqi government has essentially rendered it completely ineffective. Many argue that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is to blame for the lack of unity, and assert that the biggest step in creating an effective government is his resignation. Regardless, it’s going to take a while before the country is ready to tackle political reform. The Obama Administration has made it clear that the airstrikes will last for months.



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