The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - which currently controls large swathes of both Iraq and Syria - was established as a renegade militant group out of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It emerged from the turmoil engulfing the country after the 2003 U.S. invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein.
The group came to prominence after the Syrian uprising, attracting foreign fighters and capturing strategic areas in the war-torn country, and became notorious for executing opponents – often through beheadings and crucifixions.
Their main aim is to spread across large areas of Syria and Iraq and impose a harsh interpretation of Sharia Law whilst creating a single Islamic state. The ISIS force consists of about 12,000 fighters, some hailing from Europe, Pakistan and Chechnya.
ISIS is led by Iraqi-born Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as ‘the invisible jihadist’. The U.S. has placed a $10m bounty on his head, although his elusiveness - demonstrated by the fact that only two known photos of him exist - makes his involvement in the group unclear.
On June 9, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to the hands of ISIS. The rebels seized control of government offices, police stations and the airport causing around 500,000 people to flee.
Mosul is often considered a strategic city as it is a crossroads of Iraq and Syria - as well as a its considerable levels of oil production. Meanwhile, Sunni militants drove into the town of Baiji and torched the court house and local police station after freeing prisoners.
ISIS activity in Mosul continued to build, when on June 11, the militants captured the Turkish consulate and kidnapped the head of the diplomatic mission along with 24 staff members. The group then continued their march, surrounding Iraq’s biggest oil refinery at Baiji.
On the same day, ISIS also seized the city of Tikrit, the Saddam Hussein’s former hometown.
The militants relentlessly continued their onslaught towards the city of Samarra, which was successfully defended by the Iraqi military. Using Samarra as their launch pad, Iraqi forces are aiming to reclaim Tikrit, and districts of Baiji and al-Dour, which are also located in the Sunni-majority province, an Iraqi security source told Al Arabiya News Channel.
Despite this, the Iraq military began to retaliate with growing force on June 12, when special forces reclaimed the oil refinery in Baiji, allowing oil production to resume.
The rebels were driven out of Dhuluiya after three hours of fighting with tribesmen, police and residents.
On the same day, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces from the autonomous north of the country took control over the city of Kirkuk after the federal army abandoned their posts.
Reuters reported a Peshmerga spokesman as saying on Thursday: “The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of Peshmerga,” said Jabbar Yawar, referring to the Kurdish forces. “No Iraq army remains in Kirkuk now.”
However, government troops continue to hold on to several key positions. On Friday 13, ISIS forces attacking the cities ofJalawla and Saadiyah were forced back by the Kurdish-backed troops. On the same day, the Iraqi troops reclaimed from ISIS control the city of Muqdadiyah –located around 80 km north of Baghdad - with the aid of Shiite militias.
On June 14, clashes broke out between ISIS and Iraqi government forces in the cities of Ishaqi and Dujail. The army reasserted control over the small town of Ishaqi to secure a road linking the city to Baghdad and the cities of Tikrit and Mosul further north.
In Udhaim, located 90 km north of Baghdad, Shiite fighters and police clashed against militants who earlier occupied a local municipal building.
On June 16, ISIS militants captured the city of Tal Afar in province of Nineveh. Residents reached by telephone in the city of Tal Afar said it had fallen to ISIS after a battle which saw heavy casualties on both sides.