Alarming regional and world powers, the Islamic State in Iraq and
the Levant (ISIL) claimed universal authority when it dropped the
local element in its name and said its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,
as leader of the Islamic State, was now caliph of the Muslim world -
a mediaeval title last widely recognized in the Ottoman sultan
deposed 90 years ago after World War One.
"He is the imam and caliph for Muslims everywhere," group spokesman
Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an online statement on Sunday, using
titles that carry religious and civil power. The declaration came at
the start of the holy month of Ramadan.
The move, which follows a three-week drive for territory by ISIL
militants and allies among Iraqi's Sunni Muslim minority, aims to
erase international borders drawn by colonial powers and defy
Baghdad's U.S.- and Iranian-backed, Shi'ite-led government.
It also poses a direct challenge to the global leadership of al
Qaeda, which has disowned it, and to conservative Gulf Arab Sunni
rulers who already view the group as a security threat.
The Iraqi government has appealed for international help and has
accused Sunni neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, of having fostered
Islamist militancy in Syria and Iraq. Iraqi army spokesman Qassim
Atta said declaring a caliphate could backfire by underlining
Baghdadi's group posed a risk to other nations:
"This declaration is a message by Islamic State not only to Iraq or
Syria but to the region and the world. The message is that Islamic
State has become a threat to all countries," he said. "I believe all
countries, once they read the declaration, will change their
attitudes because it orders everybody to be loyal to it."
Fighters from the group overran the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 10
and have advanced toward Baghdad, prompting the despatch of U.S.
military advisers. In Syria, ISIL has captured territory in the
north and east, along the desert frontier with Iraq.
The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, with the help of
Shi'ite sectarian militias, has managed to stop the militants from
reaching the capital but security forces have been unable to take
back cities they abandoned in the fighting.
The army attempted last week to take back Tikrit but was unable to
seize the city. Helicopters hit Islamic State positions around the
city overnight. On the southern outskirts, a battle raged into
Monday, residents in the areas said.
Tikrit was the home city of Saddam Hussein, whose overthrow by U.S.
forces in 2003 ended a long history of domination by Sunnis over
what is today a Shi'ite majority in Iraq.
The fighting has started to draw in international support for
Baghdad, two and a half years after U.S. troops pulled out.
Armed and trained by the United States, Iraq's armed forces crumbled
in the face of the ISIL onslaught and have struggled to bring
heavier weaponry to bear. Only two aircraft - turboprop Cessna
Caravans normally used as short-range passenger and cargo carriers -
are capable of firing the powerful Hellfire missile.
The U.S. is flying armed and unarmed aircraft in Iraq's airspace but
says it has not engaged in fighting.
Russia has sent its first warplanes to Baghdad, filling an order for
five second-hand Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack jets. The government
said they will be operational within a few days.
In Falluja, where Islamic State fighters have been in control for
six months just west of Baghdad, a bank accountant who asked to
remain anonymous for fear of retribution said the announcement of
the caliphate was a "step backward": "It will only turn the
government even more hostile to us," he said. "This will isolate us
further from the rest of the world."
The Islamic State has used alliances with other, less radical Sunni
armed groups and tribal fighters who are disillusioned with Maliki.
Members Saddam’s secular Baath party have also fought in the revolt.
Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of
Economics, said he expected the declaration would alienate ISIL’s
allies: “The strategic goal of the Baathists' is the capture of
Baghdad, not the establishment of the caliphate.
[to top of second column]
"ISIL's pronouncement will most likely intensify the intra-jihadist
struggle and widen the split between ISIL and its insurgent Sunni
allies in Iraq,” he said.
The term caliph indicates a successor to the Prophet Mohammad, with
temporal authority over all Muslims.
Traditionally it denotes a
political and military leader with religious elements. Rival claims
to the succession lie at the root of the 7th century schism between
Sunnis and Shi'ites.
Following Turkey's defeat in World War One and the carving up of its
Middle East empire by Britain and France, new Turkish nationalist
rulers in 1924 formally abolished the caliphate that Ottoman sultans
had held for nearly five centuries.
For many militant Islamists, who see a decline in religious
observance and divisions among Muslims as causing many problems, the
restoration of the caliphate has been an important goal.
According to the mid-20th century Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid
Qutb, whose ideas later helped form those of al Qaeda, in order to
bring about a new caliphate, at least one state must revive Islamic
rule - a role al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden thought in the 1990s
might be filled by Taliban-run Afghanistan.
Since the Ottoman collapse, Sunni Islam has lacked an
internationally recognized clerical hierarchy. Senior figures
generally hold authority within a single country. Among the most
prominent of these is the Grand Mufti of Egypt, whose spokesman
dismissed the new caliphate in Iraq and Syria as an "illusion".
"ISIL’s announcement of what they called the Islamic caliphate is
merely a response to the chaos which has happened in Iraq as a
direct result of the inflammation of sectarian conflict in the
entire region," Ibrahim Negm said in Cairo.
ISIL has followed al Qaeda's hardline ideology, viewing Shi'ites as
heretics, but has alienated bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahri
and other Islamists with its extreme violence.
Its declaration of the Islamic State could isolate allies in Iraq
and lead to in-fighting. Such internal conflicts among rebel groups
in Syria has killed around 7,000 people there this year and
complicated the three-year uprising against Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad, another ally of Shi'ite Tehran.
The group crucified eight rival rebel fighters in Syria, a
monitoring group said on Sunday. And in the Syrian city of Raqqa,
controlled by the Islamic State, militants held a parade to
celebrate the declaration of the caliphate.
The Islamic State posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving
black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE
monitoring service said.
Some analysts say the group is a credible threat to frontiers and is
stirring regional violence while others say it exaggerates its reach
and support through sophisticated media campaigns.
The Islamic State also released a video called "Breaking of the
Borders", promoting its destruction of a frontier crossing between
the northern province of al-Hasakah in Syria and Nineveh province in
Iraq, said SITE, which tracks militant websites.
(Additional reporting Sylvia Westall in Beirut, Stephen Kalin in
Cairo, William Maclean in Dubai and Tom Henegen in Paris; Editing by
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.