The 2003 US War in Iraq exposed the tenuous relationship among the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and other minorities. In 2003, when Iraqi’s Sunnis President Saddam Hussein was toppled and his Sunnis elite military was dispersed, the power shifted to the majority population which are Shiites. The Kurdish population within Iraq have been petitioning for an independent state, because they were brutally treated under President Hussein’s rule. Once the Iraqi Shia President Nouri al-Malaki was elected in 2006 and until he stepped down in 2014, he deliberately excluded the Sunnis from any power and governing participation. The Islamic extremist terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda who are Sunnis, were not going to take this development well. The year 2006, is when ISIS became an off shoot of al-Qaeda. And the rest is history.
To gain better insight into why this area has dissolved into civil wars, there are maps of the area along with pertinent information which helps clear up any confusion about this region. On 8/8/14, VOX published selected maps with historical data by Zack Beauchamp, Max Fisher, and Dylan Matthews. Here are some excerpts:
1.) Iraq’s demographic divide
Iraq’s three-way demographic divide didn’t cause the current crisis, but it’s a huge part of it. You can see there are three main groups. The most important are Iraq’s Shia Arabs (Shiiism is a major branch of Islam), who are the country’s majority and live mostly in the south. In the north and west are Sunni Arabs. Baghdad is mixed Sunni and Shia. And in the far north are ethnic Kurds, who are religiously Sunni, but their ethnicity divides them from Arab Sunnis. Iraq’s government is dominated by the Shia majority and has underserved Sunni Arabs; the extremist group that has taken over much of the country, ISIS, is Sunni Arab. Meanwhile, the Kurds, who suffered horrifically under Saddam Hussein, have exploited the recent crisis to grant themselves greater autonomy.
2.) Sunni-Shia balance in the Middle East
This map of the region’s Sunnis and Shias is crucial for understanding the larger geopolitics of the Iraq crisis and how its neighbors are responding. Look at the swath of mostly-Sunni territory in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, both countries that are led by Shia-dominated governments; a lot of that grey area is under ISIS control. While no one in the Middle East is happy about ISIS’s takeover, the Shia governments are responding most forcefully, and the crisis is giving common cause to the Shia governments of Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This could exacerbate already-bad tension between the region’s Sunni and Shia powers, which have been supporting opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.
3.) The Kurdish region, in Iraq and beyond
The Kurds — who are long-oppressed minorities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran — have been fighting for their own country for more than a century. They’ve come closest in Iraq, where, since the 2003 war, the international community has pushed to give them an unprecedented degree of autonomy. Since the recent crisis began, they’ve taken even more de facto autonomy for themselves, and recently seized control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk, which is part Arab and part Kurd. The big problem for Kurds is that all of Iraq’s neighbors want to prevent an independent Iraqi Kurdish state, because they fear their own Kurdish populations will then fight to break off and join them.
4.) Iraq’s enormous oil reserves
Iraq has the fifth largest proven oil reserves of any country, after Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Iran. Production has gone up since the fall of the Hussein regime; in February 2014, 3.6 million barrels were being pumped a day, while in 2002 about 2 million were pumped a day. In 1991, following the Gulf War, a mere 305,000 barrels were pumped a day, gradually picking up as the country recovered from its defeat. The oil is concentrated in the Shia south and Kurdish north, with Sunni regions to the west notably lacking in oil wealth. That makes it all the more significant that the Sunni ISIS rebels have targeted the country’s largest oil refinery and have suggested they plan on seizing much of the country’s northern oil fields; see the map of “ISIS’s 2006 plan for Iraq and Syria” below for more on that.
5.) How the Sykes-Picot agreement carved Iraq’s borders
You hear a lot today about this 1916 treaty, in which the UK and French (and Russian) Empires secretly agreed to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s last Mideastern regions among themselves. Crucially, the borders between the French and British “zones” later became the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Because those later-independent states had largely arbitrary borders that forced disparate ethnic and religious groups together, and because those groups are today in conflict with one another, Sykes-Picot is often cited as a cause of warfare and violence and extremism in the Middle East. Scholars are still debating this theory, which may be too simple to be true. But the point is that the vast Arab Sunni community across the Middle East’s center was divided in half by the European-imposed Syria-Iraq border, then lumped in to artificial states with large Shia communities.
6.) The rise and fall of the Sunni insurgency, 2006-2008
ISIS was formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). At its peak level of influence in 2006, AQI controlled significant chunks of Sunni Iraq, and even set up a quasi-government along harsh Islamic lines in some of the land it controlled. However, the Sunni population turned on AQI — partly out of anger with AQI’s brutal rule and partly out of political interest. This Anbar Awakening, named after the province in which it began, resulted in former Sunni insurgents partnering with the American and Iraqi militaries to uproot AQI. AQI was roundly defeated, and lost effective control over almost all of its previous domain. The fall of AQI illustrates just how much ISIS depends on support from Sunni Iraqis. If it angers the population, they can provide critical intelligence and cooperation that would allow the Iraqi military to crush them.
7.) The Sunni protest movement of 2013
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did a lot to assist in ISIS’s rise. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2006, he has centralized a great deal of power in his office, and run the Iraqi government along Shia sectarian lines. Naturally, this infuriated Sunnis, who organized a series of protests around the country in 2012. These continued into 2013, and the Maliki government began to see them as a serious problem. Unable or unwilling to resolve the protests politically, the Maliki government turned to force. His security forces killed 56 people at protest in the northern town Hawija alone in April 2013. The forcible breakup of the protest movement convinced some Sunnis that their only solution was military, helping militant groups like ISIS and the more secular Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) recruit from and curry favor with the Sunni minority.
8.) Syria’s civil war
This map shows the state of play in Syria’s civil war, which after three years of fighting has divided between government forces (red), the anti-government rebels who began as pro-democracy protestors (green), Kurdish rebels (yellow), and the Islamist extremist fighters who have been moving in over the last two years (blue). Areas under government control tend to overlap with religious minorities, whereas both kinds of rebels are mostly from the Sunni Muslim majority. This is crucial for understanding the Iraq crisis because ISIS spent a year fighting and winning territory in Syria before it opened its offensive in Iraq. ISIS fighters have been in many cases fighting with and overpowering the more moderate rebels. This has happened in part because extremists have received funding from Gulf countries, in part because they are better at attracting foreign fighters, and in part because Syria’s government has refused to target ISIS, correctly believing that foreign powers like the US may hate Assad but would ultimately prefer him to ISIS. All of that helped give ISIS a staging ground, territory, and battlefield training for its assault now.
9.) Where ISIS has control in Iraq and Syria
The red-shaded areas across Syria and Iraq show the widest extent of what could be considered territory under ISIS control. In many cases, ISIS does not directly govern the territory so much as that they have expelled government forces; in some places it’s more contested than controlled by any one side; and in others, such as the large Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS appears to have handed control over to local Sunni groups. So this is not quite an ISIS mini-state, but it is a vast swath of Sunni Arab territory across two countries that’s held in part by an Islamist group so extreme that they were kicked out of al-Qaeda.
10.) A hypothetical re-drawing of Iraq and Syria
This is an old idea that gets new attention every few years, when violence between Sunnis and Shias reignites: should the arbitrary borders imposed by European powers be replaced with new borders along the region’s ever-fractious religious divide? The idea is unworkable in reality and would probably just create new problems. But, in a sense, this is already what the region looks like. The Iraqi government controls the country’s Shia-majority east, but Sunni Islamist extremists have seized much of western Iraq and eastern Syria. The Shia-dominated Syrian government, meanwhile, mostly only controls the country’s Shia- and Christian-heavy west. The Kurds, meanwhile, are legally autonomous in Iraq and functionally so in Syria. This map, then, is not so much just idle speculation anymore; it’s something that Iraqis and Syrians are creating themselves. One of the major questions facing Iraq, perhaps even bigger than the question of whether it can put down ISIS, is whether the government can overcome these sectarian divisions and make Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds feel that they are part of the same Iraqi state. Until Iraqis believe in that project of a diverse, inclusive nation, and until the Iraqi government is able and willing to see it through, conflict is likely to continue.