Panic as Islamists seize Iraq’s second city

Jihadi flags: ISIS on the rampage in the Middle East.

An extreme Islamist group, ISIS, has captured a great stretch of Iraq and Syria, imposing harsh laws wherever it goes. With the Iraqi government now looking weak, will the rebels triumph?

When US troops drove al-Qaeda out of their last Iraqi stronghold in Mosul in 2008, many hoped that the country could start on the road towards peace and democracy, that a long and bloody mission was finally accomplished.

Six years later, that optimism looks sadly naive. The city of Mosul has just fallen to Islamists again, this time to a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). And experts warn that it is stronger and better trained than any of its predecessors.

The international community is alarmed by the speed and success with which ISIS has taken over Iraq’s second largest city. NGOs warns that half a million of its citizens are now refugees after fleeing their homes to escape the insurgents. It has shamed Iraq’s struggling government and also the US, which has spent billions training and equipping its soldiers.

ISIS has been fighting on two fronts in both Iraq and Syria. Its mission is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region based on strict Sharia law. Experts say it has now practically achieved this, establishing its own courts of law, schools and even road signs over a vast territory.

But people under ISIS control live in fear, with beheading and amputation common punishments for minor crimes. Shia Muslim and Christian minorities are often brutally attacked. Even al-Qaeda says ISIS is too extreme.

While expensively equipped, Iraq’s army has been deeply demoralized by its struggles with ISIS. The Islamists are highly mobile and excel at conducting lightning raids on unprepared military targets far from the front line.

Mosul’s capture is viewed by many as the climactic moment in Iraq’s descent into chaos since US troops left in 2011. The former American ambassador to Iraq called it an ‘extremely serious shock’, and the British military worries that only worse is to come. In overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the last thing the US and British forces wanted was to pave the way for an extremist anti-Western state. Is Iraq doomed?

Shifting sands

Some say that ISIS has already achieved its main goal of establishing a caliphate and will capture more cities from Iraq’s beleaguered government. With the US too war-weary to intervene, it is highly likely that ISIS is here to stay. This troubled region of the world will become more unstable than ever.

Others argue that despite its headline-grabbing success, ISIS has made itself vulnerable. Its forces are stretched thin trying to control too much territory and resentment is growing over its treatment of civilians. In 2006, the tribes of Iraq rose up against the Islamists trying to oppress them; the same may happen again. While peace may not come to the region soon, ISIS’s control will not last.

You Decide

  1. Should the West be worried about the success of ISIS?
  2. ‘There are too many unhappy groups in Iraq – it would be better if the country splits up into different parts.’ Do you agree?


  1. ISIS controls a territory stretching from Aleppo in Syria to the cities of Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq. In pairs, plot this area on a map.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’, research Iraq’s ethnic tensions and why it has struggled to build a stable and prosperous state. Make a short presentation of your findings.

Some People Say...

“The Iraq War did not bring democracy closer to the region, but made it more remote than ever.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should events in Iraq matter to me?
The US government invaded Afghanistan because its Taliban government gave al-Qaeda a base from where it could plot attacks such as 9/11. If ISIS captures the state of Iraq, it will be fiercely anti-Western and likely to become a haven for groups plotting similar terrorist actions. We should also want the best for the people of Iraq, whose country has been wracked by violence for over a decade.
How did the region become so violent?
Iraq embraces a number of different ethnicities, including Kurds in the north, Sunni Muslims in the east and Shias in the south-east. The tension between the groups has produced a lot of sectarian violence. Some argue that maybe it would be easier if Iraq was divided up to reflect these different ethnic regions.

Word Watch

Former US president George W. Bush said the US war in Iraq was a ‘mission accomplished’ in May 2003. Yet while Saddam had been toppled, the US’s difficulties in controlling the country were only just beginning.
ISIS has fought against both Assad and rebel forces. While other rebel groups are interested in overthrowing Syria’s current government, ISIS’s main concern is establishing its own caliphate.
An Islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader. ‘Caliph’ means ‘the successor of Muhammad’.
While ‘Sharia law’ is a legal framework based on Islamic teaching, its interpretation and implementation is not necessarily hardline. ISIS, however, believes in a very strict interpretation.
Al-Qaeda objects to the way ISIS alienates people in the territory it controls through its harshness. ISIS also refused to support its favoured group in Syria, the extremist Nusra Front.
Saddam Hussein’s government was overthrown in 2003 after refusing to allow a UN team to confirm it was not producing nuclear and chemical weapons.

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