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Al-Qaida group declares caliphate from Syria to Iraq

The al-Qaida breakaway group that has seized much of north-eastern Syria and huge tracts of Iraq formally declared the establishment of a new Islamic state.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) demanded allegiance from Muslims worldwide.

With brutal efficiency, the Sunni extremist group has carved out a large chunk of territory that has effectively erased the border between Iraq and Syria and laid the foundations of its proto-state.

But the declaration, made on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, could trigger a wave of infighting among the Sunni militant factions that formed a loose alliance in the blitz across Iraq.

And there could be an impact on the broader international jihadist movement, especially the future of al-Qaida.

The spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared the group’s chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the leader of the new caliphate, or Islamic state.

He called on Muslims everywhere, not just those in areas under the organisation’s control, to swear loyalty to al-Baghdadi and support him.

“Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.”

He loosely defined the Islamic state’s territory as running from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala – a vast stretch of land straddling the border that is already largely under the Islamic State’s control.

He also said that with the establishment of the caliphate, the group was changing its name to just the Islamic State, dropping the mention of Iraq and the Levant.

Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state, or caliphate, that ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and beyond in various forms over the course of Islam’s 1,400-year history.

It was unclear what immediate impact the declaration would have on the ground in Syria and Iraq.

But experts predicted it could herald infighting among the Sunni militants who have joined forces with the Islamic State in its fight against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government.

The greatest impact, however, could be on the broader international jihadist movement, in particular on the future of al-Qaida.

Founded by Osama bin Laden, the group that carried out the September 11 attacks on the US has long carried the mantle of the international jihadi cause.

But the Islamic State has managed to do in Syria and Iraq what al Qaida never has – carve out a large swath of territory in the heart of the Arab world and control it.

Al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi militant who has a $10m US bounty on his head, took the reins of the Islamic State in 2010 when it was still an al Qaida affiliate based in Iraq.

Since then, he has transformed what had been an umbrella organisation focused mainly on Iraq into a transnational military force.

He has long been at odds with al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, and the two had a very public falling out after al-Baghdadi ignored al-Zawahri’s demands that the Islamic State leave Syria.

Fed up with al-Baghdadi and unable to control him, al-Zawahri formally disavowed the Islamic State in February.

But al-Baghdadi’s stature has only grown since then, as the Islamic State’s fighters have strengthened their grip on much of Syria, and now overrun large swathes of Iraq.

In Washington, the Obama administration called on the international community to unite in the face of the threat posed by the Sunni extremists.

“ISIL’s strategy to develop a caliphate across the region has been clear for some time now. That is why this is a critical moment for the international community to stand together against ISIL and the advances it has made,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The Islamic State’s declaration comes as the Iraqi government tries to wrest back some of the territory it has lost to the jihadi group and its Sunni militant allies in recent weeks.

Yesterday, Iraqi helicopter gunships struck suspected insurgent positions for a second consecutive day in the northern city of Tikrit, the predominantly Sunni home town of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi military launched its push to wrest back Tikrit, a hotbed of antipathy toward Iraq’s Shiite-led government, on Saturday with a multi-pronged assault spearheaded by ground troops backed by tanks and helicopters.

The insurgents appeared to have repelled the military’s initial push for Tikrit, and remained in control of the city yesterday, but clashes were taking place in the northern neighbourhood of Qadissiyah, residents said.

Military spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi said government troops were in full control of the university and had raised the Iraqi flag over the campus.

“The battle has several stages. The security forces have cleared most of the areas of the first stage and we have achieved results,” he said.

Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the provincial operation command, said the US was sharing intelligence with Iraq and has played an “essential” role in the Tikrit offensive.

Washington has sent 180 of 300 American troops President Barack Obama has promised to help Iraqi forces. The US is also flying manned and unmanned aircraft on reconnaissance missions over Iraq.

Iraq’s government is eager to make progress in Tikrit after weeks of demoralising defeats at the hands of the Islamic State and its Sunni allies.

The militants’ surge across the vast Sunni-dominated areas that stretch from Baghdad north and west to the Syrian and Jordanian borders has thrown Iraq into its deepest crisis since US troops withdrew in December 2011.

More ominously, the insurgent blitz, which prompted Kurdish forces to assert long-held claims over disputed territory, has raised the prospect of Iraq being split in three, along sectarian and ethnic lines.

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