Following a week of city seizures and strikes by an al-Qaeda splinter group, the situation in Iraq continues to escalate.
With deaths in the hundreds and no foreseeable end to the violence caused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), here are the answers to the important questions on the state of Iraq.
Who are the ISIL?
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – began as an offshoot of al-Qaeda and its Syrian counterpart Juhbat al-Nursa. ISIL left al-Qaeda following disagreements over Syria and is often called "too extreme" for its parent group.
What has happened so far?
ISIL has been successful in capturing much of the northern Iraqi territory over the past week. Monday, forces seized Tal Afar, a potential key in connecting the Islamic states of Iraq and Syria, as it continues to move toward the capital of Baghdad. Tal Afar joins Mosul, the country's second-largest city, Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, and a number of other prominent cities under ISIL control.
Pictures released by ISIL show the execution of Iraqi soldiers and massacred civilians. There are no confirmed death tolls at this time, although it is likely in the hundreds.
How did the conflict begin?
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, took power in 2006 and largely left out many Sunnis from ascending in the political ranks, leaving religious strife as the centerpiece of this disagreement. In the past, al-Maliki has also been criticized for his alleged "spoils system" approach in promoting his political allies to posts in the military. Many cite his regime and rapid promotion process as the chief reason behind an underprepared Iraqi military after President Obama's withdrawal of all American troops in 2011.
What is Iraq's response?
The Iraqi military has made attempts to keep ISIL at bay but has failed to reclaim the cities ISIL been taken. Recently, al-Maliki gave an impassioned speech calling for Iraqi citizens to fight to reclaim "every inch" of the captured land.
How is the United States involved?
Last week, Obama ruled out ground troops in Iraq, but he has yet to dismiss drone strikes and air assaults. He has called for political agreement between the parties before the U.S. intervenes, but Republican leaders call for more direct military action to stop the attacks. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a recent Yahoo! News interview, announced that the administration is pursuing every possible option, including working with Iran to reach an end to this conflict.
Some officials are evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, while the State Department has issued a warning for all Americans traveling to Iraq. U.S. naval forces moved into the Persian Gulf on Saturday. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the USS George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier, accompanied by a missile cruiser and destroyer into the Gulf, as military options are still being weighed.
Follow USA TODAY for updates as the story continues to develop.
Contributing: Jim Michaels, USA TODAY