As Extremists Rise in Iraq, America's Legacy Begins to Unravel

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The jacket belonging to an Iraqi Army uniform lies on the ground in front of the remains of a burnt out Iraqi army vehicle some 10km of east of the northern city of Mosul, on June 11, 2014.
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On Thursday, militant fighters from the Al Qaeda splinter group ISIS made their way into the city of Kirkuk, advancing their claim on the northern part of Iraq. ISIS militants are said to already control the northern Iraqi cities of Tirkit and Mosul.

Even as they did, President Obama was circumspect about what kind of direct action, if any, the U.S. might take to stop their steady advance. 

Today during Friday prayers, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who represents the most senior Shiite cleric in the country, called on all able-bodied Iraqis to pick up arms to fight the Sunni militants.

Dexter Filkins, staff writer for The New Yorker, has reported on the region for many years. He provides a look at America’s legacy in Iraq, and says that Americans should be concerned about crisis because it extends far beyond Iraq.

"I think what's really worrying to me is not just what's happening in Iraq," says Filkins. "We're beginning to see, and I think we will see, a regional war taking place."

Filkins believes a regional conflict is starting to grow from the Iranian border in the East, and extending all the way to the Mediterranean.

"You've got, essentially, Iraq and Syria in the middle and the border between those countries is effectively gone," he says. "ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front are running back and forth and fighting on each side. ISIS has carried out bombings in Lebanon, which is a very weak state that has been flooded with Syrian refugees."

According to Filkins, Iranian Shiite forces will likely get involved to help Iraq combat the Sunni militants.  

"Really, you're talking about a big, long, sectarian war that stretches across the middle of the Middle East," he says. "It's true that what's happening in Iraq, the sort of Sunni-Shiite fight, is being fueled by the war in Syria."

Filkins adds that in many ways, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is known for his sectarian and authoritarian governing style, has largely brought this about himself.

"Maliki, ever since the Americans left, has begun a very sectarian project," says Filkins. "He has taken most of the power in the country for himself, he's oppressed and done mass arrests of Sunnis across the Sunni heartland in the north and west of the country. He's basically marginalized them politically, and so that's opened up the space that these extremists are kind of moving into. In a way, Maliki may turn to the Iranians, but he's already done that—he is Shiite sectarian to the core, and he's been that way for most of his adult life long before the Americans even got to Iraq."

In some way's, the U.S. war in Iraq spurred the current crisis.

"If you just rewind the clock a little bit, the two big extremist groups in Syria—there's one called Jabhat Al-Nusra and the other one is ISIS—these were both created by former members of Al Qaeda in Iraq," says Filkins. "These were kind of the survivors—they were essentially all but wiped out during the American war. There was a handful of them that were left."

Filkins says that about a year and a half ago, former Iraqi Al Qaeda members crossed the Syrian border and reunited. Because the border between Iraq and Syria has virtually disintegrated, Jabhat Al-Nusra, ISIS, and other extremists have been able to easily join forces and support each other.

"This may not today threaten the United States, but the area between Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq—this vast ungoverned area—is very rapidly coming to resemble what Afghanistan was before 9/11, and that is a kind of big sanctuary for the most pathological extremists that Islam can produce," says Filkins. "There's about 7,000 Sunni jihadis, foreigners, who are fighting against the Assad government [in Syria], including those from the United States, Germany, the U.K., and France."

Flikins adds that because these Sunni jihadis are from the West, many of them have passports and will likely return to their country of origin.

"That's a pretty terrifying prospect," he says. "Terrible things happen to people when they go to war, and these guys are already at the far end of the spectrum in terms of their religious and political extremism. These groups may not be threatening the United States today, but there's no way we can safely ignore this absolute cataclysm that's happening in the middle of the Middle East."

The foreign jihadis currently aligned with these extremist groups, says Filkins, are not "no-nothings"—many are sophisticated, educated, and have access to Western travel documents, much like Mohamed Atta, who helped carried out the 9/11 attacks.

"It's pretty terrifying—we've seen this movie before, we know how it ends, and it's starting again," he adds.