An al-Qaida breakaway group, apparently backed by other Sunni groups and fighters, has seized a large section of northern Iraq after previously taking much of northeastern Syria with an eye toward establishing an Islamic state straddling the two countries. The situation on the ground is changing rapidly, but some patterns and explanations are now emerging:
Q: WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW?
A: The group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is taking advantage of two trends: growing discontent among Iraq’s minority Sunnis toward Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, which they accuse of discrimination; and the increasingly sectarian dimension of the Syrian civil war, as mostly Sunni rebels fight to oust a regime dominated by members of a Shiite sect. Taking advantage of the breakdown of state authority, militant fighters easily cross the border. The Iraqi territory recently seized by militants is populated overwhelmingly by Sunnis, many of whom, at least for now, may see al-Maliki as more of a threat than the Islamic State. Signs are also emerging that the Islamic State is backed in its current campaign by former military officers and other members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.