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An Introduction and Field Guide to the Fighting in Iraq

If you're confused about the Iraq conflict, you're not alone. But VICE News can help explain the bloody sectarianism and a deadly proxy war.

by Ryan Faith
Jul 5 2014, 3:19pm

Photo by Jayel Aheram

VICE News has been working hard to cover the situation in Iraq and help keep you updated. Between the on-the-ground coverage by John Beck, our live blog of breaking news, video dispatches, and other coverage, we’ve been taking on the formidable task of keeping up with what’s going on, even as it gets more complicated, confusing, and dangerous.

But just in case you’re tuning in now and feel the need to try and figure out what the hell is happening, we’ve also put together a quick overview of the situation and some background for reference. It won’t make the current conflict simple or easy to understand, but you can be confused on a much higher, more sophisticated level.

The fighting in Iraq and Syria is an outgrowth of a decades-long proxy war between Team Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia) and Team Shia (anchored by Iran). They aren't the only teams in the conflict, but their struggle fuels fights across the region.

This series opens with the introduction Here’s Who Is Fighting in Iraq and Why, where we describe the four sides fighting it out in Iraq today: Teams Sunni, Shia, Iraq, and Kurd.

The Shia and Sunni sides (led by Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively) have been locked in a decades-long proxy war that just exploded into a new round of fighting in Iraq. Team Iraq is trying to keep the stricken state together, while Team Kurd is a bystander to all this and just wants out.


Photo via ISIS

In part 1 of the Field Guide to Iraq’s Fighting Forces, we introduce Team Sunni, digging into the bitter fight between the Sunni establishment and extremists. United by a common religious sect and bitterly divided over what that means, both halves of Team Sunni are as intent on battling each other as they are about defeating their arch-enemy, Team Shia.

Part 1 also introduces ISIS and gives a rundown of its strengths, weaknesses, and major objectives. Before ISIS had publicly announced its intention to establish a new Islamic state, we wrote about its aspirations to set up a country and the major challenges it would face.


Photo by Karla Elliott

In part 2, we discuss Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Heading up Iraq and presiding over the current disaster, Maliki has gone from being Washington’s man in Baghdad to Washington’s biggest headache. His political machinations of the last few years have tried to play the US and Iran against each other, which may leave everyone unhappy.

We also discuss how Maliki's rule has fragmented Iraq and, by extension, what needs to happen as the country’s parliament tries to find a replacement.


Photo by David Holt

Part 3 of the Field Guide to Iraq’s Fighting Factions discusses Iran, the US, and their fight over Iraq. Iran has tried to take a leadership role in Middle Eastern anti-American sentiment. This means that Iran may soon face a difficult choice — defeating ISIS in Iraq but cooperating with the hated US to do it.

Meanwhile, the US is the last main backer of a unified, non-sectarian Iraq, meaning that until there’s greater local support for Iraq as a nation (instead of a sectarian power base), the US may have to sit back and watch all the hard-earned progress there unravel.


Photo by Boris Niehaus

Finally, part 4 deals with the two other powers getting involved in the region, Russia and the Kurds. These groups have both been relegated to the sidelines over the last several years, but are now seeing a chance to pursue their destinies.

Russia may edge out the US as a weapons supplier and UN Security Council benefactor. Meanwhile, the Kurds may be able finally to form a country in all of the chaos, with the surprising support of Turkey and Israel.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Image via Flickr