Last night President Obama announced that he was authorizing targeted airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq. The goal, he said, was to protect American personnel who are stationed there and to provide vital humanitarian aid to communities that have been threatened with violence and genocide. Here's what you need to know.
Who would be targeted in these airstrikes?
The main target would be ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It's a renegade group that began life as an offshoot of Al Qaeda, but whose use of systemic violence against citizens proved so extreme that Al Qaeda actually disavowed any connection.
ISIS had been fighting the Assad regime in Syria before they began their assault in Iraq. In just a few days this June, they took control of a large swath of Northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. Thanks to support from former Saddam Hussein loyalists and other Sunni groups, they've been able to hold that territory and, in some case, to continue their advance.
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Why are we getting involved?
The mission seems to be two-fold.
1. To safeguard US soldiers and diplomats. When ISIS first began taking territory in Iraq, the Obama administration sent several hundred military advisers to assist the Iraqi government. Some of those advisers are stationed in a city called Erbil, which is also home to a US consulate. ISIS is now within striking distance of Erbil, and President Obama said that if fighters advance on the city, they'll be targeted.
2. To protect vulnerable populations. The main lines of conflict in Iraq pit Shi'ite against Sunni, but several vulnerable minority groups have been caught in the fighting. Among them are the Yazidi, many of whom live in and around the town of Sinjar. When ISIS moved into Sinjar in recent days, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to a nearby mountain for safety. And now they're trapped on that mountain, without food or water, as hostile ISIS forces wait below. At the request of the Iraqi government, the US has begun making airdrops of food and water. And to help break the siege and create an escape route for those trapped Yazidi, the President has also authorized airstrikes in support of Iraqi military efforts.
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Where is the Iraqi government in all this?
When ISIS first began taking territory in Iraq, the Obama administration insisted that the insurgency was not just a military problem but a political one, and that it required a political solution. One cause of the fighting, they argued, was that Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, had lost the support of a large swath of Sunni Iraq, and that a new prime minister at the head of a unity government would be better able to develop a durable solution. Two months later, the process of selecting a new prime minister is not yet complete, and the Iraqi government has been unable to make headway against ISIS.
Are there any other major players?
There are the Kurds, who control a large autonomous area in the north of Iraq. They've long coveted a state of their own, and for a time, it seemed they might actually benefit from the current chaos (by helping the government fight ISIS and demanding greater independence in return). But in recent days, ISIS has begun direct attacks on Kurdish positions, and so far they seem to be winning.
What does ISIS want?
They want an Islamic state, or actually a "caliphate" which is more like the restoration of an Islamic empire to unify all muslims.
Is this the beginning of a new Iraq war?
On this question, the President offered an emphatic no. "As Commander-in-Chief," he said, "I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."