Most everyone was shocked when Iraqi rebels, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), routed government forces and swept through northern Iraq in mid-June. But the truth is that the Iraq crisis had been building for some time.
The chart below shows the number of documented civilian deaths from violence per month, as tallied by the non-profit group Iraq Body Count. You'll notice a huge spike in June 2014, but also that civilian deaths have been rising since early 2013:
This month's spike in civilian deaths, of course, is an indicator of the conflict getting much worse and the fighting more intense. But the trend over the last year shows that this didn't come out of nowhere.
The obvious takeaway is that ISIS and its allies had been amping up their war against the Iraqi government for years now. "Iraq is a basket case these days," the Washington Institute's Iraq expert Michael Knights wrote back in March 2013, "and none of its problems came out of the blue." The chaos then was less from the sort of open battles you see now, and more from what you'd classically define as terrorism: car bombs, shootings, and the like. The escalation in those incidents suggested that ISIS was getting more powerful and assertive — as we now know they were. By early 2014, ISIS and the government were engaging in open combat in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi (and ISIS was winning).
The root causes of Iraq's current crisis — Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shia sectarian government, the Sunni demands for disproportionate amounts of political power, the civil war in Syria — aren't short-term problems with short-term solutions. The Iraq crisis isn't solvable in the near term.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal recently warned that the fighting "carries warning signs of a civil war." Political scientists typically define war as a conflict with over 1,000 battle deaths. While's Iraq's crisis is messy, this data suggests that the fighting is getting so bad and so quickly that the conflict could be close to crossing the line into civil war.
There is good reason to fear that, whether or not the conflict becomes a full-blown civil war, it is poised to get worse. ISIS and its allies hold a large chunk of territory and are seizing more as time goes on. That spike of deaths in June 2014 may, sadly, not be a one-time event.