If you drive out of Baghdad, heading north on Highway One, you come after three or four hours to Tikrit, birthplace and hometown of the late Saddam Hussein. A few hours after that you'll be in Mosul, oil capital of the North. Time was you would have had to negotiate (bribe) your way through a lot of army checkpoints along the way, but they're all gone now.
Stay on the road after Mosul and it takes you over the border into Syria (where it's called the M4.) There's not much to see there in northern Syria, just a civil war really. The monotony of the desert will be relieved briefly when you cross the Euphrates using the bridge at Qere Qozaq. Stick with the road and eventually, if you're lucky, you'll be in Aleppo - a city which once ranked with Constantinople and Cairo - it was the western terminal of the Silk Road to China.
Now it's a bombed out war zone. It was loyal to the government but got taken by the "Free Syrian Army" in 2012 before being taken back by Assad forces. Needless to say a to-fro war across a city rather wrecks the place. The current "sit rep" is the city is 70% government, 30% rebel.
So you'll want to be pushing on. West out of Aleppo the countryside turns greener but no less deadly until the road turns into the Homs bypass. The bypass is recommended because Homs is the birthplace of the Syrian Spring. It all started there back in 2011. Homs was the first city to throw off the Assad yoke. The yoke went back on in 2012 and currently the city is under Syrian army martial law.
Giving Homs a wide birth, staying on the road, by now it is called the M5, it's a quick 50 mile hop down to Damascus.
Not that anyone is making this journey at the moment. The traffic is all in the other direction, especially if your name is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, commander of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) second in command of all Al Qaeda and a decidedly more effective general than Bin Liner was in his later years.
Abu Bakr is a mysterious figure: he wears a mask in public so his features are not known, he doesn't seem to have been particularly warlike until the Americans locked him up in Camp Bucca down on the Gulf coast for four years. Prior to that he was an accademic. He has a PhD from the University of Baghdad. He comes from Samarra, a town thirty miles south of Tikrit and it seems he will be returning there shortly since yesterday his forces took Tikrit; although "took" may be too strong a word since the Iraqi army melted away and the native Tikritis would have been quite happy to see him. They've been under a Shia heel since the fall of Saddam Hussein. (Note that Saddam, Abu Bakr and al Qaeda are all Sunni while the official Iraq government in Baghdad is Shia.)
ISIS has been working its way south along Highway One since they crossed over from Syria earlier this year. Last week they captured Mosul and the way south is currently open to them.
Which is all a bit awkward for the West, well the Americans mainly. This was not part of the plan. Shias are a majority in Iraq. They were supposed to be able to hold the place. But it looks like they lack the guts for a fight. They have indulged in a common Arab practice of switching back to civilian clothes as soon as it looks like they might lose a battle. They cannot be blamed really; Abu Bakr is keen on beheading captured fighters. He's done about a hundred so far this week.
Boss of the official Iraqi government is Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki, a Shia who has appointed nothing but other Shias to
government posts. The President is more of a figurehead. His name is
Jalal Talabani - which isn't exactly reassuring. Plan A would be to bolster these two with matériel support: guns, ammo, money.
If the Americans just stand back the whole "Iraq War" will unravel. All those casualties; all that money spent - for nothing. But it is not likely the public in America or the UK will tolerate another big war. The first one only really happened because Saddam Hussein had been demonized to the max in the media. Afghanistan happened because Bin Liner was the new bogey man. But Abu Bakr? Not seeing it. Maybe the
West can bolster them enough to keep them in power. But it's going to
have to be money and guns and a little air support. The public won't
wear another ground war.
This means that if ISIS takes Iraq the future is sanctions rather than intervention. Call an ISIS government illegitimate. Embargo the whole country. This despite the fact the Americans were pretty close to helping ISIS take over Syria at one point. Only Russian intervention stopped them.
The other big powers in the region: Saudi and Israel, would probably not be too unhappy to see ISIS in power. ISIS are Sunni; the Saudis are Sunni. ISIS hates Assad. Israel hates Assad (because he supports Hezbollah.) The elephant in the room is the Shia stronghold of Iran. ISIS may yet turn out to be our new best friends.