A 26-Step Guide To Understanding Why The U.S. Is Bombing Iraq, Again

What led to Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes on fighters with the “Islamic State” in northern Iraq.

1. For the first time since the U.S. withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, U.S. fighter jets bombed northern Iraq Friday to thwart what President Obama described as a potential “genocide” at the hands of the ultra-violent “Islamic State” (IS).

Handout / Reuters

In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq to oust then-President Saddam Hussein after the Bush administration, wrongly, argued that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. Over the next seven years, more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as the country descended into a chaotic civil war and a bloody insurgency against the U.S. occupation. In 2008, President Obama campaigned on a pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, which he completed in 2011.

2. The self-described “Islamic State” first appeared as an al-Qaeda offshoot after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the bloody Sunni insurgency and civil war that followed. IS has comprised different groups and names, with mergers and breaks over time.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

The group’s stated goal is an Islamist state in Syria and Iraq.

3. The group officially changed its name to “Islamic State” in June. Before that, IS most recently went by Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), Arabic for Syria. Sham can also be translated as Levant, hence some use ISIL instead of ISIS.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

Before 2011, IS used various other names, as well.

4. The group expanded into Syria in 2011, taking advantage of the security vacuum created after the country’s uprising shifted from non-violence into an all-out bloody regional battle. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, once a top al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, led them there.

AP Photo/Militant video

Here Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a sermon at a mosque in Iraq on July 5, in one of his few public appearances. The Syrian conflict began in 2011 as a non-violent uprising against President Bashar al-Assad; it has since descended into a bloody civil war between Assad, IS, and other armed Syrian rebels representing a spectrum of interests. More than 170,000 Syrians have died from the violence, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while more than 9 million have been displaced.

5. IS attracted members with its reputation as the most fearsome and fundamentalist group. Global jihadi funders also kept them well-armed and financed. In 2013, the group conquered Raqaa in eastern Syria and claimed it the capital of its “Islamic State.”

Stringer / Reuters

IS members also have a savvy social media presence, which they use to both fundraise and publicize their exploits, such as tweeting out pictures of public crucifixions, captured weapons, and beheadings.

6. As IS advanced across eastern Syria, their ultra-violent tactics, like public beheadings, alienated many rebels. In January, rebel groups joined forces to try to oust IS. Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, al-Nusra Front, joined in against IS in February.

Stringer / Reuters

Al-Qaeda’s top leadership cut off official ties with IS during this period.

7. IS initially lost some ground in Syria. But in the months that followed it regrouped and refocused — and soon had a growing presence in Iraq, which was already facing one of the deadliest and most dangerous periods since the U.S. occupation.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

A banner at a checkpoint belonging to IS at the main entrance of Rawah in Anbar, Iraq.

8. In recent years, many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, had grown angry with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule, and the corruption, abuse, and sectarianism rampant in Iraq’s security forces and Shia-dominated government.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

9. In January, IS and other Sunni militants took over much of Iraq’s Anbar province—once a center of the Sunni insurgency—where it preyed off long-simmering political instability to attract support from local groups angry at Iraq’s government and police.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

In Dec. 2013, the Iraqi government outraged many in Anbar after security forces used violence to break up a Sunni-led protest camp that they accused of providing cover for al-Qaeda. In the months that followed, human rights groups also accused Iraqi security forces of using undue force in Anbar, including the use of barrel bombs and targeting civilians and hospitals.

10. In Anbar, IS first captured Fallujah — where the U.S. had fought bloody battles — and much of nearby Ramadi. IS now controlled a contiguous territory from Syria to Iraq, a significant military and symbolic defeat for Iraqi and U.S. policymakers.

The Associated Press

During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the U.S. fought several bloody battles with Sunni insurgents to gain control of Fallujah, a city that for many Americans became closely associated with the war. In Anbar, IS was able to advance by working with disenfranchised Sunni tribes and militant groups.

11. Over the next six months, IS terrorized Iraqi security forces and sent half a million Iraqis fleeing. At the same time, IS built alliances with local tribes and militias, many of whom had supported the Sunni insurgency and Saddam’s Baath party.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

12. After months of small battles, on June 10 IS seized the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Iraq’s poorly trained and under resourced soldiers abandoned the city and left their U.S tanks and weapons behind.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

13. Widespread panic ensued. Fearful Iraqi soldiers deserted the military en masse as IS seized airports and government buildings. Around 500,000 Iraqis fled north from Mosul to Iraq’s Kurdish region, considered the country’s safest.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP / Getty Images

Discarded Iraqi military uniforms near Mosul on June 11.

14. In the days that followed, IS continued to advance further into Iraq, seizing the city of Tikrit and nearby towns. With Iraq’s army weakened, Kurdish troops decided to take control of Kirkuk and extend forces to protect other towns from IS’ advance.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP / Getty Images

A Kurdish stands guard at a checkpoint on June 16.

15. By June 2014, IS had an estimated 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 5,000 in Syria, including 3,000 foreign fighters, according to The Economist. U.S. and European officials worried that radicalized IS fighters could return home to carry out attacks.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

An ISIS fighter on patrol in Mosul.

16. Meanwhile, Iraq’s government remained paralyzed by long-standing divides. Maliki urged Iraqis to sign up for the army, but the parliament failed to authorize further action. Iranian leaders offered to support Maliki, raising fears of a regional conflict.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

Iraqi security forces on patrol. Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war from 1980-1988, in which more than a million and half people died.

17. U.S. officials fretted over the regional ramifications of IS’ swift advance, especially in Iraq’s oil-rich west. On June 12, Obama said he was considering how to help — “I don’t rule out anything” — but then clarified to rule out U.S ground troops.

18. Panic over IS soon spread to the capital Baghdad, as more and more underpaid soldiers fearful of IS deserted. On June 21, Shiite militias marched through Baghdad in a scene reminiscent of when sectarian militias divided Baghdad during the civil war.

Many Sunni Iraqis also started to flee Baghdad after Mosul’s capture, fearful that IS’ advance would set off another round of sectarian bloodletting.

19. While U.S. and world attention shifted from Iraq to other news, IS continued to advance. On July 19, IS ordered the remaining Christians of Mosul to convert, pay a tax, leave — or die. In the following days, thousands fled, leaving everything behind.

AP Photo

Christians have lived in Mosul for nearly two millennia. Thousands already fled after the U.S.-led invasion and the violence that followed. IS wrote the Arabic letter nun to mark Christian houses in Mosul and graffiti like this: “Long live the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Muslims are happy with the return of Mujahideen. God is the greatest.”

20. Then IS came for the Yazidi, a Kurdish religious minority they consider devil worshippers. On Aug. 3, IS overran Kurdish troops and swept through Sinjar and several other towns, sending as many as 200,000 people fleeing to Kurdistan.

AP Photo via AP video

As in Mosul, IS destroyed religious shrines and looted homes. Iraq’s Nineveh province, where IS was advancing, has long been home to many of Iraq’s religious minorities.

21. Of those who fled, up to 40,000 Yazidi escaped to Mount Sinjar, where they began to starve as IS waited below. On Aug. 5, a Yezidi member of Iraq’s parliament made an emotional appeal to the world to stop the “butchery” of her people.

22. Then on Aug. 7, IS took over Qarqoush, Iraq’s largest Christian city, and several other towns, sending hundreds more Iraqi families fleeing, many to Kurdistan. That same day IS said it captured the Mosul dam, which it could use to flood the region.

AP Photo

Refugees fleeing north to Kurdistan.

23. International outrage over IS’ brutality and the plight of Iraq’s minorities grew. On Thursday, the White House called the situation a “humanitarian catastrophe,” and announced that Obama was weighing limited action.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

Displaced people, who fled the violence in Nineveh province, Kurdistan on Aug 8. White House Press Spokesperson Josh Earnest in a press briefing repeatedly told reporters that there would be “no boots on the ground.”

24. On Thursday, the U.S. said it had begun humanitarian aid drops to the stranded Yazidi. Late that evening, Obama announced that he had authorized limited airstrikes on IS fighters if the group attacked Irbil.

Larry Downing / Reuters

“Today America is coming to help,” Obama said, saying the airstrikes were intended to prevent IS from advancing on Irbil and to protect U.S. personnel in the region and save those stranded in Sinjar, if necessary. The U.S. has a strong presence and ties in Kurdistan, an oil-rich region that has its own autonomous government and remained the most stable part of Iraq during the U.S. occupation.

25. The next day, U.S. fighter jets dropped bombs on IS forces that the U.S. said had fired artillery shells at Kurdish forces defending Irbil. The U.S. did not release details on how many died in the attack.

The Pentagon released this video of a U.S. airstrike by a F/A-18 on a target in Northern Iraq on Aug. 8.

26. In Iraq, after a decade of war, domestic divides, and foreign interventions, U.S officials have continued to stress that there is no military solution — and that Iraq ultimately must find a “political solution” to its problems, IS among them.

Stringer/Iraq / Reuters

Displaced Yazidi families seek refuge in Kurdistan on Aug. 4.

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