More than 170 air strikes have been launched against Islamic State (IS) positions in Iraq in the past month in an attempt to halt the advance of the militant group.
The US carried out 174 of them, while French jets joined the mission on 19 September, launching their first strikes in the north east of the country.
Most of the strikes have been concentrated on targets around the Mosul Dam – a key strategic site seized by IS fighters but subsequently re-taken by Kurdish and Iraqi forces, supported by American air attacks.
However, on 15 September the US expanded its efforts to a new area, hitting Sadr al-Yusufiya, 25km (15 miles) from Baghdad.
President Barack Obama said there would be “no safe haven” for IS – formerly known as Isis – and that he would not hesitate to take action against the militants in Syria as well as Iraq.
Mosul DamAlmost 100 of the US air strikes have hit an area around Mosul – the location of country’s largest dam.
IS fighters have targeted a number of Iraqi dams during their advance, capturing the facility at Falluja in April. They went on to take Mosul in August, but US air strikes helped force them out later that month.
IS fighters have also attacked the country’s second largest dam at Haditha, but the US says its strikes have cleared militants from a wide area around the facility.
The rise of IS
The rapid advance of Islamic State, the extremist group that has grown out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, has thrown the region into chaos.
The Islamic State has control of large swathes of Syria and Iraq and in late June the group declared it had created a caliphate, or Islamic state, stretching from Aleppo in Syria to the province of Diyala in Iraq.
Mosul – with its Sunni Arab majority – fell after the collapse of the Iraqi security forces. Although they far outnumbered the militant fighters, many police and soldiers just abandoned their posts and fled.
Fighters had already taken the central city of Falluja and parts of nearby Ramadi in December last year.
How IS operates
Islamic State fighters – among them many foreign jihadists – have a reputation for brutality. Atrocities allegedly committed by those in the group’s ranks include kidnappings, beheadings, crucifixions, torture and summary executions.
International investigators gathering evidence against Islamic State fighters have built up a detailed picture of how IS operates, with self-appointed leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the helm.
Directly beneath him are four advisory councils: Sharia (Islamic law); Shura (consultation); military and security. The latter two are the most powerful.
This one-plus-four structure is then duplicated down the chain of command to local level.
The US Central Intelligence Agency believes IS may have up to 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria – three times as many as previously thought.
Among them are foreign recruits – the number of whom has surged since IS declared itself a caliphate in the summer, international investigators say.
Figures from the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) and the New York-basedSoufan Group show an estimated 12,000 fighters from almost 80 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with extremist groups.
Note: figures do not take into account for those who may have left the region or died during fighting
The figures suggest that while about a quarter of the foreign fighters are from the West, the majority are from nearby Arab countries, such as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Some have travelled from as far away as China, Canada and Australia.
Australian officials believe at least 60 of the country’s citizens are fighting with jihadist groups in Syria and northern Iraq. Others suggest the figure could be as high as 250.
On 18 September, police in Sydney arrested 15 people and charged one with conspiracy to prepare a terrorist attack following armed raids across the city.
It followed reports of a plot to carry out “demonstration killings” by Islamic extremists, including a public beheading.
Establishing a caliphate
Setting up a state governed under strict Islamic law has long been a goal of many jihadists.
Based on a details posted on Twitter earlier this year, the map below shows 16 “wilayats”, or provinces, that IS claims to control, or where it claims to have a presence.
The areas where IS is operating largely match areas where its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was active during the peak of the sectarian insurgency in 2006.
AQI was eventually suppressed through a combination of a surge in US troop numbers and Sunni tribesmen taking up arms to drive it out.
Ethnic and religious divide
Iraq’s Sunnis are increasingly disenchanted with what they see as their systematic marginalisation by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and targeting by security forces.
The country is home to a range of minority religious groups who have recently found themselves caught up in the violence brought about by the rise of IS.