CAIRO — Iraq's sectarian meltdown threatens national borders drawn by European diplomats more than a century ago.
More ominously — for the United States, the West and others — it is a “huge” victory for Islamists that could destabilize many nations, analysts say.
“What I think we are seeing now is the beginning … of the breakup of the state of Iraq,” said Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
“The magnitude of this is great. It is not something that happens every once in a while, and it has been building for some time now.”
With lightning speed and help from Iraq's Sunni Muslims, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has seized much of northern Iraq and seems poised to attack the capital, Baghdad.
For more than a year, the terrorist group has battled Syria's Assad regime, as well as Syrian rebels it judged to be insufficiently Islamist; its tactics are so brutal and radical that al-Qaida chastised and repudiated it.
About 6,000 ISIS fighters invaded Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and 30,000 Iraqi soldiers ran. The terrorists seized $420 million from Mosul's main bank and paraded through the city with captured U.S.-made military uniforms, weapons, vehicles and other equipment.
Human rights groups say a half-million Iraqis have fled, many to Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave.
Kurdish troops, known as peshmerga, are opposing ISIS and captured portions of oil-rich Kirkuk province, which some observers say is a precursor to declaring Kurdish independence.
That would alarm Turkey and Iran, which have restive Kurdish minorities.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on Shiite Muslim militias and volunteers to defend Baghdad; Iranian troops reportedly are moving in to help defend a fellow Shiite government.
In Mosul, ISIS issued a 16-point code of conduct banning alcohol and tobacco, ordering women to stay indoors and punishing thievery with the loss of a hand or arm. Its goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate, or super-state, “to enact the law of Allah worldwide.”
Fleeing Iraqis have reported executions, beheadings and crucifixions of ISIS captives.
Experts contacted by the Tribune-Review blame the sectarian conflagration on Maliki's authoritarian, Shiite-dominated rule that alienated Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds.
It is a “huge defeat” for Maliki and a “humiliation for the Iraqi state and security apparatus, which was built from scratch by the Americans after the 2003 invasion,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and expert on jihadi groups.
“Maliki said he was the strong man, the one who could stand up to ISIS” during recent Iraqi elections, Gerges said. “Now the emperor is naked.”
He said ISIS' sweeping advance is “a huge event for the (jihadist) family: They control almost 50 percent of Iraqi territory … (and) huge chunks of Syria.”
“Now they are going to psychologically play it up very big,” he explained. “They will say, ‘We are exacting vengeance. We are defeating the Shia state' … pouring gas on the roaring sectarian fire” between Sunnis and Shias across the Mideast.
That threat to regional stability could benefit Iraqi Kurds, though, said Foreign Relations fellow Cook.
Murderously repressed for decades in Iraq and only slightly less so in Turkey and Iran, Kurds have longed for independence.
“Now they have Kirkuk, and that is a big deal in terms of energy. It is going to be very hard to get Kirkuk out of their hands,” he said. “This is their opportunity, and who can blame them?”
ISIS' gains are “a fragile state on sand,” Gerges said, but “they don't have to keep the land; they just have show … many young Sunnis in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the gulf that ISIS could take over parts of the Iraqi state.”
And with Syria's civil war now engulfing Iraq, Islamist radicals can claim to be broadly on the march, according to Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and expert on Islamic politics.
“For budding jihadists worldwide, the continued battlefield victories registered by ISIS and the perception that the ‘will of God' is on its side against numerically superior enemies will only enhance the prestige of joining the group and furthering its goals,” Zelin wrote last week.