As the world watched with amazement as jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized Iraq’s second largest city Mosul on Tuesday and began advancing toward Baghdad, one expert said that Islamism has been brewing in Iraq for at least two years; a result of the political marginalization of the country’s Sunni population.

Emma Sky, a former political adviser to US Chief of Staff Ray Odierno when he served as commander of the US forces in Iraq between 2008-2010 and currently a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, told The Times of Israel that Iraq’s presidential elections of 2010 were a turning point in Iraq’s post-Saddam history.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, backed by Iran, managed to form a staunchly Shiite coalition together with the followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Maliki pushed aside Iyad Allawi, head of the secular Iraqiyya bloc emerged first in the elections after winning the overwhelming support of Iraq’s Sunni population. Sunnis were already feeling disenfranchised, having been largely removed from positions of power following the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his Baath party in 2003.

“Supported by the US, the Sunni tribes pushed out and contained Al-Qaeda in Iraq. They turned out in large numbers to participate in the elections of 2010,” Sky said. “Iraqiyya received large support from Sunnis and won the elections, but was never given first chance to try to form the government.”

Emma Sky, left, accompanies General Ray Odierno (center) in Iraq's eastern province of Diyala, 2009 (photo credit: Facebook image)

Emma Sky, left, accompanies General Ray Odierno (center) in Iraq’s eastern province of Diyala, 2009 (photo credit: Facebook image)

Since the elections, Maliki has been systematically eliminating his political rivals, mostly Sunnis or secular Shiites. In 2011, Sunni Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi was forced to flee Iraq after being charged and sentenced for terrorist attacks in the country. His supporters said the case was politically motivated.

Soon after, in January 2012, Sunni Minister of Finance Rafia al-Issawi survived a car bomb attack, sparking demonstrations by his supporters. In December that year, Issawi told a news conference that 150 of his guards and staff members had been arrested by his political rival Maliki. The following month, another car bomb targeted his convoy in Baghdad.

Issawi’s marginalization by Maliki in late 2012 led to widespread Sunni protests across Iraq. Starting in the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad, violence escalated in April 2013 when a government crackdown on a protest encampment in the northern city of Hawija led to the death of dozens of civilians. By the end of the month, more than 300 people were reported dead.

“Maliki undermined the moderate political leaders, which created the environment for ISIL to reemerge,” Sky said. “Sunni tribes who previously stood against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, are now neutral or even supportive as the government has become their enemy.”

Iraq expert Emma Sky (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/TOI)

Iraq expert Emma Sky (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/TOI)

While most of the ISIL fighters are Iraqi, there are foreigners among them, Sky said. Many of them hold Islamist views, but some appear to be supporters of the secular Baath party, rendered illegal in post-Saddam Iraq.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city captured by ISIL on Tuesday, has been “a source of financing [for ISIL] for quite some time through blackmail and protection rackets,” Sky noted.

ISIL’s impressive military gains in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq render state borders less relevant, the UK-native added. The West must pick sides in the conflict, but the choice need not necessarily be between radical Shiites and radical Sunnis. Sky herself was instrumental in coordinating between the Sunni tribesmen of western Iraq and the American occupation forces during her time in the country.

“The west needs to view Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as one battlefield now, and needs a policy to deal with this,” she said. “The choice should not be AL-Qaeda affiliates or Iranian-backed oppressive regimes. We need to identify who our friends are and support them. If we do not, the disastrous situation will spread further, beyond the region.”