When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army, it left an unemployed pool of 400,000 armed men who were then quickly recruited by Sunni and Shi’ite extremists.
Since then, successive Shi’ite-dominated governments and the Kurds have kept Sunnis out of power and disenfranchised them, even on local levels. The Islamic State has been quick to exploit those grievances. It relied heavily on local Sunnis as it stormed across northwestern Iraq, and one analyst told VOA that could prove to be its Achilles’ heel in the highly divided country.
Col. Joel Rayburn, a military research fellow at the National Defense University, said some top-level generals who were part of Saddam’s army are making tactical deals with the militants in order to return to power in Iraq. But there are divisions in Iraq’s large Sunni community about whether that is the best approach.
"You are talking about a debate within the Sunni community about whether to align tactically with the Islamic State in some places, in the near term, in order to achieve near-term political goals, and then turn on the Islamic State on down the road, or whether to turn on the Islamic State now," said Rayburn.
Hoping to turn the Sunni tide of support, Washington and the international community pressured former Shi’ite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down. Maliki was seen as a deeply sectarian figure.
Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has formed a new, more inclusive government in an attempt to unify the country and oust the militants with international support.
But the Islamic State has proven itself formidable. As it consolidates its hold in Syria and Sunni areas of Iraq, there is growing concern that it will easily reach into neighboring Jordan, the West Bank and Lebanon - each with a different mix of religious sects, affiliations, and internal challenges that raise questions about their susceptibility to the militant group.