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All you need to know about the crisis in Iraq

What's happening in Iraq? Who's fighting who? What do they want?

Here's the low-down on the crisis unfolding more than 7,000km from us.

1. What's happening in Iraq?

Over the past week, Sunni militants have been rapidly extending their control over northern Iraq. They have wrested control of several key cities from the Iraqi government including Mosul, the capital of the Nineveh Province.

This has thrown the country into chaos, with around 500,000 people having been forced to flee Mosul alone, reported The Telegraph. 

2. Who are these militants?

These militants are fighting under the umbrella of radical group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

ISIS is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, and evolved from various extremist groups who came together after US invaded Iraq. But the group no longer has ties to Al-Qaeda.

Little is known about its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There is a US$10 million (S$ 12.5 million) million reward for his capture, reported USA Today.

3. What do they want?

Their goal is to create a state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Tigris ruled by a particularly rigorous understanding of Islam, according to Deutsche Welle​. So far, they have control over many areas in Syria and west and north of Iraq.

4. Why have they been so successful?

  • Tensions between the Sunni minority and the Shi'ite majority: 

Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shi'ite-dominated government are resented by many Sunnis and Kurds for policies which they feel have oppressed or alienated them, reported Time. The militants are leveraging on this discontent to draw support for its cause.

  • Syria’s civil war

The war has resulted in millions seeking refuge in nearby countries Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Iraq has seen part of its border with Syria erased by ISIS, making it easy for militants to cross the borders, reported Times.

  • Power vacuum in Baghdad

Deutsche Welle reported that Mr al-Maliki has been unable to find coalition partners since the general election in April.

  • Routed by ISIS

USA Today reported that the Iraqi army has done little effective training since US forces withdrew in 2011. The New York Times reported that the government forces have crumbled in disarray and speculation is rife that the forces may have received orders to give up without a fight. 

5. Who's helping the Iraqi government?

  • Iran

Iran has sent two elite forces to protect its allies in Baghdad and the sacred Shi’ite sites of Najaf and Karbala, reported Times.

  • US

US has ruled out sending ground troops, but it has expedited the sale of billions of dollars in weapons and military equipment to Iraq, USA Today reported. It is also considering the use of air strikes.  The US also appears to be working on a political alliance with rival Iran to help stabilise Iraq.

Sources: Times, Gawker, New York Times, USA TodayDeutsche Welle, The Telegraph