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Terrorists gain ground in Iraq fighting
02:40 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Militants have taken over vast swaths in Iraq, putting troops on the defensive

While such movement has been fast, it's not totally surprising given Iraq's history

Some warned the U.S. military's withdrawal could open the way for violence

Syria's civil war bolstered ISIS, which is appealing to disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq

CNN  — 

What’s happening now in Iraq is dramatic, significant, quite possibly historic. But, to some, it is not surprising.

Militants believed to be from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, overmatched government forces and now control a vast swath of its territory. Hundreds of thousands have fled, becoming refugees overnight. Sectarian violence plagues some areas not under ISIS control.

And amid all this, some believe the Baghdad-based central government won’t be able to do much about it.

Some of these developments, like the fall of Mosul, have been swift and sudden. Others, such as the tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, date back for decades, if not centuries.

But all this trouble didn’t come out of nowhere. For years, experts have predicted that various factors – some rooted in history, some of them related to recent big decisions, some functions of what’s happening in the region – could foster instability and violence in Iraq.

A picture taken with a mobile phone shows an armored vehicle belonging to Iraqi security forces in flames.

PREDICTION: Breaking up the army after Saddam Hussein’s fall could haunt Iraq

While not as big as what it had been prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq’s military under Saddam Hussein boasted an estimated 430,000 soldiers and another 400,000 personnel in paramilitary units and security services when U.S.-led troops invaded in spring 2003.

Still, the Iraqis proved no match for coalition forces.

After the military was overrun, it was dissolved – along with Iraq’s defense and information ministries – by Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq.

That left hundreds of thousands of troops suddenly out of work. Those with ranks of colonel and above – who knew the most about strategy, tactics and more – were hit even harder, as they weren’t entitled to severance packages and couldn’t work for the new Iraqi government.

Then they had to go somewhere.

According to Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “hundreds, if not thousands, of skilled officers of Saddam Hussein’s … joined ISIS.”

That means this militant force – even as it is supplemented by foreign fighters – is trained and knows Iraq well. And its leaders may be more organized, strategically savvy and adept at fighting than some in Iraq’s current military.

“(This) has allowed ISIS to basically have skills, to have motivation, to have command and control,” Gerges told CNN. “It’s a mini-army fighting both in Iraq and Syria.”

How to respond to the ISIS threat

PREDICTION: Syria’s civil war will destabilize the region

ISIS is not just fighting, it’s winning.

As of Wednesday, the militant group had taken over not just Iraq’s second-largest city in Mosul but also Tikrit (which is Saddam’s hometown). It has a major presence in northeastern Syria.

That latter fact speaks to how ISIS – after the group it emerged from, al Qaeda in Iraq, suffered heavy losses in the 2000s – was able to emerge as a significant, and stronger, fighting force.

This growth is thanks, in large part, to the success that ISIS has had in Syria since 2011, when that country’s civil war began.

In that time, the militant group gained experience, recruits and resources as it gobbled up territory – and, with it, millions of dollars and military firepower that has helped it to flourish.

And Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank now in Jordan, says there’s been a “concerted effort to merge Iraq and Syria into one sectarian theater,” crediting what’s happened in Syria with breathing “new life into militancy in Iraq, rejuvenating their confidence, resources and cause.”

“And they have an agenda,” adds CNN’s Nic Robertson, referring to ISIS’s goal to create a caliphate – or an Islamic state – across a vast area that includes Syria and Iraq. “We’re now seeing … that agenda (in action).”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague agrees that the Syrian conflict has negatively affected other countries, such as Iraq. That is one major reason why, he says, some accord needs to be reached in Syria – though that won’t solve everything.