NEW DELHI: The United States has launched fresh air strikes against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq, in an operation connected to the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates river.

The operation follows airstrikes in the besieged Iraqi town of Amerli -- which has been held by the militants for more than two months. Like the Amerli strikes, which were accompanied by the delivery of hundreds of bundles of emergency aid, the strikes near the Haditha Dam in Anbar province have been justified by the US government as falling within the ambit of US President Barack Obama’s mandate of “limited strikes” that aim to protect minority communities in Iraq and American citizens.

The Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Sunday in a statement (as quoted by the New York Times), “We conducted these strikes to prevent terrorists from further threatening the security of the dam. The strikes were conducted under authority to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, support humanitarian efforts, and support Iraqi forces that are acting in furtherance of these objectives.”

The IS has made rapid advancement in Iraq, beginning with the fall of Falluja earlier this year, and raising international concern and involvement after the group captured Mosul in June.

Russia supplied war planes and military equipment, with advisers being sent to Baghdad to facilitate the process. Iran, a key ally of the Shia government in Baghdad, sent Revolutionary Guards.

The US sent 300 military advisers and deployed up to 275 troops to Baghdad to provide security and support to the American embassy, but “equipped” for combat if the situation were to arise. The US has also supplied military equipment.

The US ordered air strikes against IS militants for the first time when the group captured territory around Mount Sinjar earlier in August, justifying the decision by saying the move was to protect the minority Yazidi community from a “genocide,” as IS militants continued to target Shias and Kurds.

The US has also supported a political change in Iraq, dropping support for former ally and now former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri-al-Maliki. The Obama administration blamed Maliki for pursuing divisive policies, that facilitated the rise of sunni militants in northern Iraq -- the foremost among whom were the Islamic State.

Recent developments in Iraq are testament to the fact that Shia-dominated government’s divisive policies have sown the seeds of sectarianism in Iraq, with a deadly suicide bombing killing 11 people and injuring 30 others just south of Baghdad on Saturday. The attack follows an attack on a Sunni mosque in the Iraq’s northeastern province of Diyala that killed 73 people, and attacks in Baghdad and Kirkuk killed at least 42 people.

With Iraq facing deepening sectarian violence, many believe that these latest attacks are in response to the attack on the Sunni mosque, which began with a suicide bombing outside Musab bin Omair Mosque, as gunmen raided the building and opened fire on worshipers inside, killing 73 people.

However, whilst it is true that Maliki and his Shia dominated administration in Baghdad have pursued discriminatory policies, the US has played an instrumental role in Maliki’s rise to power in the first place, in addition to consistently supporting Iraq’s divisive politics. This includes siding with the Iraqi government’s military crackdown on Anbar last December and the decision to clamp down on protests in Falluja using the rouse of “anti-terrorism.” Falluja was the first city to fall to IS militants at the beginning of this year.

More importantly, whilst sectarianism is certainly a factor in the rise of IS -- through which the discontent in Iraq has channeled itself -- it is a factor that was not all that important in Iraq prior to the US invasion of 2003. When the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, a need emerged to replace the security vacuum with a new political elite. The main opposition to Hussein at the time were ethno-sectarian parties, and the US brought these factions to power cementing identity politics in the region.

This creation of identity-based politics, paved the way for sectarian identity to become a key political factor. Prior to 2003, although a limited notion of a Shia identity and a Kurdish identity did exist in Iraq, there was no concept of a homogenous Sunni identity. The divisive policies of the Iraqi state -- facilitated by the US -- have paved the way for the emergence of a Sunni identity.

It is this emergence of a Sunni identity rooted in the notion of victimhood, that made the emergence of IS in Iraq possible.

As the group expanded from Iraq into Syria -- establishing a stronghold in Ar-Raqqah province -- it renamed itself the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant", or the "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” in 2013. The advance of anti-government forces -- including ISIL -- in Syria, was made possible in turn, by the United States and allies assistance to Sunni rebels, who share with the US the objective to topple Alawite leader Assad. The US greenlighted Turkish and Saudi aid to anti-Assad rebels, supplied these groups with material and financial assistance, and used the CIA to train rebels at a secret base in Jordan.

The US, which was instrumental in propping Maliki to power, has in the past few weeks issued statements supporting Maliki’s successor Ebadi, reaffirming financial and military assistance to the to-be Prime Minister. The US’ relations with Maliki soured over the latter’s failure to form a more inclusive government, with the Obama administration highlighting sectarian tensions as a key reason for the rapid advancement of militants in the country’s north.

Ironically, the US, which invaded Iraq in 2003 and has supported Maliki aggressively till now, played on the Shia-Sunni-Kurd sectarian divide in Iraq, with the political developments that have followed needing to be located in this context.

When Islamic State militants began their advance with the fall of Falluja earlier this year, he Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report that "Fallujah residents held no brief for ISIL, but their hatred of the Iraqi army -- seen as the instrument of a Shiite, sectarian regime, directed from Tehran, that discriminates against Sunnis in general and Anbar in particular -- ran even deeper.” The statement is perhaps applies in equal measure to the events of currently taking shape, and is reflective of policies in Iraq that have come to acquire a discriminatory character at the behest of a government strongly supported by the US.