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A month in Iraq

The background

Jan 3rd 2014

Sunni militants take Fallujah and declare
the establishment of an Islamic emirate. The insurgents, including militants from ISIS and several smaller groups, fight Iraqi security forces for control of Ramadi and other towns
in Iraq’s western Anbar province.

Feb 3rd

Al-Qaeda officially cuts ties with ISIS.
A statement posted on jihadist forums accuses ISIS of disobeying orders by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The statement also urges Islamists to remain loyal to the teachings of Osama bin Laden. There is speculation that al-Zawahiri believes ISIS’s extreme brutality is damaging the al-Qaeda brand.

March 16th

Iraqi government security forces recapture Ramadi and some parts of Fallujah.

May 8th

An ISIS commander claims the group fully controls Fallujah. It’s believed up to 300,000 civilians have fled the city; reports suggest
it has become a “ghost town”.


ISIS is now officially the biggest and baddest global jihadi group on the planet. Nothing says ‘hardcore’ like being cast out by al-Qaeda”William McCants, scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institute


ISIS targets


Location: 43 miles west of Baghdad

Population: Approx 350,000
before the current conflict

Demographics: Sunni-dominated

Background: Hugely symbolic town for many Iraqi Sunnis who view it as a centre of resistance against oppression. The site of battles between insurgents and US-backed Iraqi forces in 2004. Had been a centre of demonstrations against Iraq’s Shia government since December 2012.


Location: 78 miles north of Baghdad.

Population: Approx 350,000

Demographics: Dominated by Sunnis, despite containing several holy Shia shrines.

Background: Of symbolic importance to Shias due to the al-Askari mosque. ISIS bombed the mosque, one of the holiest Shia sites, in February 2006, prompting an outbreak of sectarian violence. Various Shia militias, some backed by Iran, have been protecting the shrines from ISIS. Approximately half the population has fled the city.


Location: 250 miles northwest of Baghdad

Population: Approx 1.8 million. Iraq’s second city

Demographics: Very multicultural until the arrival of ISIS. A mix of Sunni and Shia Muslims lived alongside Iraq’s largest Christian population.

Background: US forces took control of the city in April 2003 and faced numerous insurgent attacks in 2004. The nearby dam controls water and power to much of northern Iraq.

Where did ISIS come from?

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum

What are the origins of ISIS?

It started with Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group which became al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 after he pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. They had this problem of perception, of being a foreign group with little popular support, so in 2006 they created the Mujahideen Shura Council [an umbrella organisation of Sunni Islamist groups], and after al-Zarqawi’s death this group was disbanded and replaced by the Islamic State of Iraq. They became ISIS in 2013 after attempting to subsume the al-Nusra Front under an announced ‘merger’.

When did ISIS break from al-Qaeda?

The Islamic State claims they became independent in 2006 with the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, but there was still communication between the groups. Even after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader in May 2010, his language still suggested loyalty to al-Qaeda. The real break occurred when ISIS was formed in 2013. Al-Qaeda tried to annul al-Baghdadi’s attempt to subsume the al-Nusra Front in Syria, but he refused to disband this new group. The 2014 statement from al-Qaeda disavowing ISIS was a formality – ISIS had been de facto independent since 2013. After this break-off, al-Baghdadi began projecting himself more and more as a Caliph [the supreme leader of an Islamic state run according to Sharia law]. He added names to his name to show he was from the Quraysh, from the same tribe as Prophet Mohammed, as well as from the Prophet’s family.

Do ISIS and Al-Qaeda share an ideology?

The end goal is ultimately the same, for the caliphate to extend across the world. But there are disagreements on how they should get there.

Who’s funding ISIS?

It’s largely self-funded. There’s extortion and oil smuggling; foreign donations play little role. Islamist groups that relied on donations from the Gulf struggled when that stream of revenue dried up.

How sophisticated is their PR?

Their videos are high quality and they’re good at social media. They set up provincial newsfeeds on Twitter while putting more emphasis on the global nature of their struggle to appeal to potential foreign fighters. Messages from al-Baghdadi are available in English and multiple other languages almost immediately.

How widespread is support for ISIS among Iraqi Sunnis?

Some see them as a lesser evil compared to the government or the Kurds. In Mosul many were grateful for the removal of checkpoints, but ISIS did quickly impose their agenda of banning smoking, destroying shrines etc, and that’s sure to create resentment.Also, there’s a great deal of intimidation that goes on.

Why did the Iraqi army collapse?

James F Jeffrey, US ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

How were ISIS able to take Tikrit and Mosul with such ease?

They’re a mobile, combat experienced, self-confident people who are willing to die. They combine good fire and manoeuvre tactics with mortar skills and the ability to use suicide bombers. They’ve got good intelligence and they’ve successfully used a blitzkrieg tactic. If they’d been up against the US army they’d have had their heads handed to them. The US army would have fought, but these Iraqi troops are badly led from their generals right up to al-Maliki. They’re unmotivated and very badly trained.

Was President Obama wrong to say Iraq was stable with a professional military when he withdrew troops in 2011?

No, because it wasn’t in a terrible state then. The country was basically at peace apart from remnants of al-Qaeda launching suicide bombs every now and then. Also, Obama didn’t withdraw the troops. Bush signed an agreement to have all troops out by the end of 2011. I recommended we keep some troops on; a limited presence to offer what was needed – training, equipping, some counter terrorism direct action. Obama wasn’t misleading anybody. What he couldn’t calculate were three things. One, al-Maliki got increasingly worse as a prime minister and military commander, alienating the Kurds and the Sunnis, and undercutting any kind of independent or competent military leader and replacing them with his hacks and loyalists. Two, Syria slipped out of control, largely because the US didn’t play a role. Not doing that helped allow the rise of the third element, ISIL [an alternative name for ISIS]. They were successful militarily and were able to enter Iraq and perform the way we’ve seen them perform.

Should the ISIS capture of Fallujah in January 2014 have been a clear warning?

It was for me and the Iraqi government. Almost all of the pundit community including me bashed our heads in trying to tell the administration to act. But the administration did essentially nothing until Mosul fell.

How much of Iraq’s failure can be pinned on al-Maliki?

He’s a difficult, non-inclusive, sectarian person, but then so is almost everybody he’s dealing with. The vast majority of politicians in Iraq pursue sectarian and religious objectives. Al-Maliki is very insecure and untrusting – the kind of guy who’d have a food taster – but that’s how you become a leader in a medieval system. One reason we didn’t try harder to get rid of him, bearing in mind he was a democratically elected prime minister of a constitutional country, was that you could at least do business with him. It was hard to get a commitment from him, but he did live up to them.

Does the US have a moral obligation to aid Iraq?

Of course. The Kurds, the Yazidis, the Shia – these are people who made decisions based on the assumption that the United States would support and fight for a constitutional government, which with al-Maliki they began losing, and also against these demons in ISIL. It’s not like I’m saying ‘send another 170,000 troops in and kill another 400-500 Americans’ – we’ve done these bombing campaigns in Libya, Kosovo, northern Iraq in 1991 and in 2003, in Bosnia… We provided close air support and interdiction for friendly non-US forces on the ground and in each case we succeeded. Using your air force to beat somebody else’s artillery on the ground is very effective when you’re on the defensive. We have a moral obligation to expend some ordnance on people who will make you and I better off if they’re dead – and the sooner the better. You don’t need a moral obligation to kill these fuckers. How’s that? You can use that as a quote.

To read the full interview visit our blog at

ISIS targets


Location: 90 miles north of Baghdad

Population: Approx 250,000

Demographics: Sunni majority

Background: Former home base of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.


Location: 147 miles north of Baghdad, 52 miles south of Erbil.

Population: Approx 800,000

Demographics: A mix of Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs. Kurds had been driven from the city under Saddam Hussein’s ‘Arabisation’ programme.

Background Controlled by Kurdish peshmerga forces since 12th June. The Kurdish Regional Government has long aimed to incorporate the city into its autonomous region.

“We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword” – ISIS statement on Christians in Mosul

What can we learn from history?

Justin Marozzi, writer and historian

What kind of perspective does an understanding of Baghdad’s history offer on the current situation in Iraq?

A long view on Baghdad suggests that turbulence, disorder – and, tragically, bloodshed – are consistent features of life in this part of the Middle East. That is what a study of the city’s extraordinary history makes abundantly clear. Sectarian tensions, though by no means explaining all of Baghdad’s problems, tend to lie at the heart of its difficulties, as they do once again with ISIS at the gates of the city.

From your experience of living in Baghdad, and from what you’ve heard from friends in the city, how do you think ordinary Baghdadis responded to ISIS military successes in June? Are they fearful the city will be taken?

Some Baghdadis were certainly fearful and they might well be because they know what happens when a group like ISIS takes a city – as Baghdadis knew when Hulagu appeared at the gates of Baghdad in 1258, and again when Tamerlane swept through like a firestorm in 1401. That said, the considered view is that Baghdad would be a step too far for ISIS. As one friend put it to me: the Shia would eat ISIS if they came to Baghdad.

Despite all it’s been through, Baghdad has survived. Is there a resilience and a willpower to the people that should offer hope?

Baghdad and her people are the great survivors. Baghdadis have
resilience seared into their DNA. Many other cities have risen and fallen during Baghdad’s 13 centuries, but the Iraqi capital has managed to endure despite setbacks, conflicts and torrents of blood that would have destroyed lesser places. It is an astonishing tribute to the toughness of the people.

Can you describe your own relationship to Baghdad and to Iraq, and how did you feel when you heard news of ISIS taking Iraqi cities in June?

I felt devastated when I heard about ISIS gains. I was very worried about a number of my friends. Many have already left but plenty remain. However, I believe ISIS will not last. Iraqis will turn against them as they did against al-Qaeda in 2007. The new government in Baghdad must start governing for Iraq – not only for the Shia, nor for their own bank accounts. It’s difficult to be optimistic on this front because Iraqis are serially let down by their politicians, all too many of whom are venal, sectarian and blind to the national interest.

Justin Marozzi is a writer and historian whose latest book, ‘Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood’, is published by Penguin


“The call to form a national emergency government is a coup against the constitution and the political process” Nouri al-Maliki says he will not consider forming an administration that’s more inclusive of Sunnis and other ethnic groups. Al-Maliki has been criticised for putting Shia interests ahead of Iraqi national security. 


“The sun of jihad has risen. The glad tidings of good are shining. Triumph looms on the horizon” ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in a statement declaring the formation of a caliphate


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