Why militants are bringing the region to its knees
THE speed with which Islamist militants have notched up a series of victories in northern Iraq represents a dramatic surge in the fortunes of an organisation that until recently was a little-known al-Qa'ida offshoot.
Less than a year ago the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) was best known for its activities in neighbouring Syria, where its fighters are involved in the offensive to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
There, the group quickly became notorious for violence so extreme that it was disavowed by other Islamist groups.
But, far from being chastened by its experiences in Syria, Isis continued to expand its presence in Iraq. It had already been able to gain a strong foothold in Anbar province and in June it burst out to launch an all-out assault across northern Iraq, the forces of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, largely melting away without resistance.
In a string of stunning victories Isis captured large swathes of territory, including the oil-rich city of Mosul and a number of oilfields, also commandeering millions of dollars worth of US military hardware abandoned by retreating Iraqi forces.
The group became exceedingly rich in the process and enjoys a steady flow of income from oil wells in Syria and Iraq. Consequently Isis has been able to implement one of its long-standing goals, the creation of their own state in the form of an Islamic Caliphate.
Having consolidated its hold on Mosul, it has now turned its sights on the surrounding Kurdish enclaves.
Two important factors account for the group's dramatic successes.
The first is the support they have received from their co-religionist tribal Sunni leaders in Iraq, who regard it as a useful means of putting pressure on the al-Maliki government. The other has been the woeful performance of the Iraqi armed forces who have invariably fled rather than confront Isis.
The US has now decided to intervene in a limited capacity rather than allow Iraq to collapse into complete anarchy.
The question now is whether that will be enough. (Daily Telegraph, London)