Baghdad: Ruthless jihadists spearheading a Sunni militant offensive in Iraq have declared an “Islamic caliphate” and ordered Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to their chief, in a spectacular bid to extend their authority.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant renamed itself simply the Islamic State (IS) and declared its shadowy frontman the leader of the world's Muslims, in a clear challenge to al-Qaeda for control of the global jihadist movement.
Iraqi forces meanwhile pressed a counter-offensive Monday against executed dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, one of a string of towns and cities overrun by IS-led fighters in a swift advance that left more than 1,000 people dead, displaced hundreds of thousands and piled pressure on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Maliki's bid for a third term in office has been battered by the offensive and he is no longer seen as the clear frontrunner when parliament reopens on Tuesday following elections in April.
IS announced yesterday it was establishing a “caliphate”—an Islamic form of government last seen under the Ottoman Empire—extending now from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyala province in eastern Iraq, the regions where it has fought against the regimes in power.
In an audio recording distributed online, the group declared its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “the caliph” and “leader for Muslims everywhere”. Henceforth, the group said, he is to be known as “Caliph Ibrahim”—a reference to his real name.
Though the move may not have immediate significant impact on the ground, it is an indicator of the group's confidence and marks a move against al-Qaeda—from which it broke away—in particular, analysts say.
The caliphate is “the biggest development in international jihad since September 11”, said Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution in Doha, referring to the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States in 2001.
“It could mark the birth of a new era of transnational jihadism... and that poses a real danger to al-Qaeda and its leadership,” he said, adding that IS, with members in many countries, is the richest jihadist group.
Baghdadi, thought to have been born in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971, is touted by the group as a battle-hardened tactician who fought US forces following the 2003 US-led invasion, and is now widely seen as rivalling al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri as the world's most influential jihadist.
His group has drawn thousands of foreign fighters, attracted by a combination of Baghdadi's own appeal, IS's efforts to establish what it believes is an ideal Islamic state, and the group's sophisticated propaganda apparatus which publishes magazines and videos in English and a host of European languages.
The group is known for its brutality, summarily executing its opponents and crucifying rival Islamic rebels in Syria. Since the Prophet Mohammed's death, a caliph was designated “the prince” or emir “of the believers”.
After the first four caliphs who succeeded Mohammed, the caliphate lived its golden age in the Omayyad empire from the year 661 to 750, and then under the Abbasids, from 750 to 1517. It was abolished when the Ottoman empire fell in 1924.
In Syria, IS fighters control large swathes of territory in Deir Ezzor near the Iraq border, Raqa in the north, as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo province. In Iraq, it has spearheaded a lightning offensive since June 9, capturing sizeable territories in the north and west of the conflict-torn country.
Iraqi forces initially wilted in the face of the onslaught but have mounted an ambitious counter-offensive to take back Tikrit, a battle which could be crucial tactically and for the morale of the security forces.
A security source based north of the city said reinforcements had arrived with tanks and artillery, with an army officer saying the Iraqi military controlled parts of the outskirts of the city.
Witnesses reported air strikes pounding Tikrit throughout the night, while clashes were reported in several areas around the city yesterday.
World leaders and religious clerics have pushed Iraqi leaders to unite and quickly form a government, but despite the urgency, politicians have warned that the process of choose a new prime minister could take upwards of a month.
Though Maliki emerged from April 30 elections in pole position to retain his post, with his bloc winning by far the most seats albeit not a majority, his opponents have stepped up their criticism of him as the militant offensive rages.
Maliki's national reconciliation adviser, Amr Khuzaie, said the crisis was even more dangerous than the brutal Sunni-Shiite violence that left tens of thousands dead. “Now, the danger is definitely more... than 2006, 2007,” he told AFP.