Skip to main content

5 questions: What's going on in Iraq?

By Elise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter
updated 5:03 PM EST, Mon January 6, 2014
Gunmen patrol during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq on January 5.
Gunmen patrol during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq on January 5.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Last year was the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008
  • Security void in Iraq has allowed al Qaeda-linked groups to strengthen
  • Al Qaeda-linked groups are mounting attacks on both sides of Iraq's border with Syria

Washington (CNN) -- The recent fighting in Iraq has posed a serious challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his government, raising questions about his ability to hold the country together amid a rising insurgency.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the United States will help the Iraqi government in the battle against al Qaeda-linked fighters in western Iraq, but he stressed it won't send troops.

Here are five questions about the deteriorating situation:

1. I thought the Iraq war was over. Why is there still fighting?

Well, actually last year was the deadliest since 2008. The number of dead reached its worst levels since the height of the Iraq war, when sectarian fighting between the country's Shiite majority and its Sunni minority pushed it to the brink of civil war. Those tensions continue to be fueled by widespread discontent among the Sunnis, who say they are marginalized by the Shiite-led government and unfairly targeted by heavy-handed security tactics.

Al-Maliki tells troops not to strike Falluja neighborhoods

Iraq faces 'biggest fight' since US left
White House: Iraqis must take lead
Ex-ambassador: U.S. committed to Iraq

Sunni anger has made it easier for al Qaeda-linked militants to recruit and operate while eroding the public's cooperation with security forces. Violence has flared in recent days because of the arrest of a Sunni lawmaker in Ramadi and the dismantling of protest sites by the army in Falluja and Ramadi.

Sunnis have rejected the authority of the government, and some Sunni officers in the army have deserted to fight Iraqi forces and attack police stations and prisons. Now fears are mounting that national elections in April will bring more violence and descend into civil war.

2. Wait, I thought al Qaeda was on the run? Now they control parts of Iraq?

The U.S. made impressive gains in weakening the so-called "core al Qaeda" leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but affiliate groups, specifically in Iraq, are gaining strength.

Since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Sunni-led group tied to al Qaeda, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has staged a comeback amid Iraq's growing sectarian tensions and launched a series of bloody attacks on government buildings and personnel, killing thousands of civilians.

ISIS has been working doggedly to exploit the security vacuum across Iraq. Conflicting reports say ISIS this weekend captured the western city of Falluja and took control of most parts of the principal capital of Ramadi. Iraqi troops are now battling insurgents in both places for control.

3. Falluja and Ramadi were pretty important to the U.S. during the Iraq war. Isn't the U.S. going to help?

Both were important battlegrounds for the U.S. during the Iraq war. Falluja was an insurgent stronghold until U.S. Marines fought their bloodiest battle of the war in 2004 to drive militants out.

How will U.S. help Iraq fight al Qaeda?
Sectarian fighting rages in Iraq
Militants threaten major Iraqi cities

In Ramadi, the U.S. supported the "Awakening," in which tribal leaders turned on al Qaeda and aligned themselves with American and Iraqi forces to secure Anbar province. That was a turning point in the war. Now that U.S. troops are all out of Iraq, Washington is not eager to go back in.

Kerry said Sunday the U.S. would help the Iraqis in their fight against al Qaeda, but "this is their fight."

Kerry: We'll help Iraq but not send troops

4. What does Syria have to do with it?

The international community has long been concerned about spillover from the civil war in Syria, and the conflict is clearly helping to fuel violence and tensions in neighboring and tensions in Iraq. ISIS was formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq but was renamed to reflect its growing ambitions in Syria and Lebanon. Their goal is to establish a single Islamic state, or caliphate, based on sharia law.

Anbar province shares a 400-mile border with Syria and because of the power vacuum there, ISIS fighters move back and forth between the countries and mount attacks on both sides of the border. But with recent setbacks in Syria, ISIS has increased its attention to Iraq.

5. I heard these ISIS guys are in Lebanon, too? This region is a mess.

There are signs ISIS may have its sights on Lebanon as well. The group said it carried out a suicide bombing on Thursday in a Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut. And it warned about more attacks against Hezbollah if it continued to send fighters to Syria to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the rebels.

Weak governments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have helped al Qaeda gain strength, and now Kerry calls ISIS "the most dangerous players in the region."

Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are all seen by many experts as proxy wars between Shiite Iran and Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation. A full-blown civil war in Iraq, in addition to Syria, could further increase sectarian tensions and destabilize the region.

Still out there and growing -- al Qaeda on the rebound

U.S. sending missiles, drones to help Iraq government

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:46 PM EST, Sun December 21, 2014
The tragic killing of two cops could not have happened at a worse time for a city embroiled in a bitter public battle over police-community relations, Errol Louis says.
updated 10:20 PM EST, Sun December 21, 2014
North Korea warns the United States that U.S. "citadels" will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony that led to the cancellation of a comedy film's release.
updated 9:51 PM EST, Sun December 21, 2014
The gateway to Japan's capital, Tokyo Station, is celebrating its centennial this month -- and it's never looked better.
updated 11:21 AM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
More than 1.7 million children in conflict-torn areas of eastern Ukraine face an "extremely serious" situation, Unicef has warned.
updated 8:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Boko Haram's latest abductions may meet a weary global reaction, Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi says.
updated 5:34 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Drops, smudges, pools of blood are everywhere -- but in the computer room CNN's Nic Robertson reels from the true horror of the Peshawar school attack.
updated 9:43 PM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The gunman behind the deadly siege in Sydney this week was not on a security watch list, and Australia's Prime Minister wants to know why.
updated 4:48 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Bestselling author Marjorie Liu had set her sights on being a lawyer, but realized it wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
CNN's Matthew Chance looks into an HRW report saying Russia has "legalized discrimination against LGBT people."
updated 9:12 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
The Sydney siege has brought home some troubling truths to Australians. They are not immune to what are often called "lone-wolf" terror attacks.
Bill Cosby has kept quiet as sexual assault allegations mounted against him, but his wife, Camille, finally spoke out in defense of her husband.
updated 9:31 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT