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  • The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has taken over about a third of Iraq. They're

  • called ISIS for short, but it's easier to understand what they are if you know them

  • by their old name, al-Qaeda in Iraq. They were a key part of the insurgency after America's

  • 2003 invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. And at the time, they had a lot of support from

  • the country's minority Sunnis. They held a lot of territory because Sunnis were furious,

  • both at the Americans who had kicked Saddam Hussein out of power, and the Shias who had

  • taken over the government. But al-Qaeda in Iraq had big ambitions. They didn't just want

  • to kick America out. They wanted to set up an Islamic state. So they banned music, and

  • they banned smoking. Women couldn't show their hair and they began beheading civilians who

  • disobeyed their rules. Starting in 2006, their brutality lost them the support of Iraqi Sunnis,

  • who partnered with US forces to help push al-Qaeda in Iraq out of the country. America

  • takes a lot of credit for this. We call it the surge. We're very proud of it and we should

  • be, but the big thing we did in the surge was we helped the Sunnis, Sons of Iraq, as

  • they called themselves, rise up against al-Qaeda in Iraq's savage theocratic rule. So al-Qaeda

  • in Iraq was defeated, but they weren't destroyed. They were driven out of much of the territory

  • they used to control, and then they began rebuilding. In particular, they became heavily

  • involved in the fighting in Syria. They were trying to overthrow the Shiite Assad regime.

  • Their tactics in Syria were so brutal and their ambitions were so grand that al-Qaeda

  • itself actually cut ties with them. Al-Qaeda thought al-Qaeda in Iraq was bad for the al-Qaeda

  • brand. After their split with al-Qaeda in February 2014, they renamed themselves ISIS

  • and they began setting up extortion rackets from Syria. They took over part of the oil

  • industry. They sold electricity back to the Syrian government that they were fighting. Meanwhile

  • in Iraq, Prime Minister Malaki had been ruling on sectarian lines. Maliki is a Shiite and

  • he was empowering Shias. He was violently breaking up Sunni protests. He was arresting

  • Sunni politicians. So the minority Sunni population began to hate him and fear him. So ISIS returned

  • to Iraq and they began selling themselves as the Sunni champion against Maliki. And

  • they gradually grew strong -- strong enough to challenge the Iraqi government in the country's

  • second-largest city, Mosul. So when 800 ISIS soldiers challenged 30,000 Iraqi army troops

  • in the mostly-Sunni city, the Iraqi troops, most of them, they put down their arms and

  • ran. This was a group that was largely Sunni. They simply refused to fight and die for a

  • Shiite government that they didn't think cared for them. That ultimately is where ISIS's

  • real power comes from. They get weapons and they get money from the territory they control

  • and they have skilled fighters, but they're facing a government that's widely unpopular

  • among Sunnis. Only a tiny percentage of Sunnis actively support ISIS's goals, but at least

  • for now they appear willing to let ISIS operate in their territory freely because they see

  • it as an alternative to a Shiite government they despise. But ISIS wants do to much more

  • than that. They want to set up a new state that reaches up into both Iraq and Syria,

  • one that governs according to a medieval interpretation of Islamic law. And so Iraq's Sunni population

  • is caught between two terrible forces: A Shia majority that violently represses them to

  • hold on to political power, and a theocratic militia that will kill them

  • if they step too far into modernity.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has taken over about a third of Iraq. They're

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