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Jihadists rebrand as cross-border state IS CLAIMS UNIVERSAL AUTHORITY, DECLARES BAGHDADI CALIPH

BAGHDAD, June 30, (Agencies): 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. 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 jihadist-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 the new parliament elected in April holds its opening session on Tuesday.

A security source based near Tikrit said reinforcements had arrived with tanks and artillery on Monday. An army officer said troops controlled parts of the outskirts of the city, some 160 kms (100 miles) north of Baghdad, which the militants captured on June 11. 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. IS announced on Sunday that 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 posted 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. Although 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, analysts say “I don’t think this materially changes anything,” said Shashank Joshi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London. “What it really changes is the sense of their ambition. It’s a potentially inspiring and invigorating movement for people worldwide. “It will tempt many radicalised Muslims to join their cause.” 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 American forces following the US-led invasion of 2003, 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 this week crucifying rival Islamist rebels in Syria. Since the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) death, a caliph was designated “the prince” or emir “of the believers”. After the first four caliphs who succeeded Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), 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 in 1924 after the Ottoman empire collapsed.

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 advance since June 9, capturing sizeable territories in the north and west, including the country’s second city Mosul. 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. World leaders and leading clerics have pressed Iraqi leaders to unite and quickly form a government, but despite the urgency, politicians have warned that the process of choosing a new prime minister could take more than a month. Though Maliki emerged from the April 30 election 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 in the wake of the offensive. 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.

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 Taleban-run Afghanistan. Since the Ottoman collapse, Sunni Islam has lacked an internationally recognised 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.

ISIL’s declaration 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 ISIL, militants held a parade to celebrate the declaration of the caliphate. ISIL 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 threat to frontiers and is stirring regional violence while others say it exaggerates its reach and support through sophisticated media campaigns. ISIL 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.

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