Insurgent forces known as ISIS, or Islamic State of Iraq al-Sham, systematically have taken stretches of territory controlled by the Iraqi government. ISIS militias have taken Mosul, the nation's second-largest city, and are moving toward Baghdad against alarmingly impotent resistance.
The forces captured a huge oil refinery in northern Iraq on Wednesday and gained control of what used to be a chemical weapons facility the next day.
These guys are not your garden-variety zealots. They are so radical that even al-Qaida, from whence they arose, considers them extreme. Enough said.
Matters are so strange that there was talk about the U.S. teaming with Iran to help drive ISIS out. It's a bad idea, but it demonstrates the moment's seriousness.
Information is conflicting, muddled or tainted. But we are certain on a few things.
First is the obvious: Iraq is a mess. It has been since before we invaded in 2003. It's possible that the huge divides between Shiites, Sunni and Kurds is so deep that modern Iraq is ungovernable.
Second, ISIS sees what most of us classify as terrorism as merely a means to an end. An Iraq ruled by this faction would be even more of a disaster than the current feckless government has created.
Third, partisan bickering in this country helps not at all. It is irresponsible to treat this complex circumstance as if it can be resolved with pat, bumper-sticker solutions.
Fourth, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's actions favoring his Shiite brethren are at least partly responsible for ISIS' rise. The Obama administration has made it clear Maliki should leave. But on Thursday, Obama committed to sending military advisers and hinted the U.S. might employ air strikes, if needed.
One thing we can conclude today is that sending U.S. ground troops back into Iraq is no answer.