Iraqi troops battled to dislodge an al-Qaeda splinter group from the city of Tikrit on Monday after its leader was declared caliph of a new Islamic state in lands seized this month across a swathe of Iraq and Syria.
(What is ISIL and what do they want in Iraq? Read The Globe’s easy explanation)
Alarming regional and world powers, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant claimed universal authority when it dropped the local element in its name and said its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was now “Caliph Ibrahim,” leader of the Muslim world. “Caliph” is a medieval title last widely recognized in the Ottoman sultanate, deposed 90 years ago after the First World War.
“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.
Also on Monday, heavy clashes were underway between several Syrian rebel factions and ISIL militants fighting for control of a border crossing with Iraq, opposition activists said.
TIKRIT: IRAQ STRUGGLES TO REGAIN CONTROL
On the southern outskirts of Tikrit, a battle raged into Monday, residents in the areas said.
The army attempted last week to take back the city of Tikrit but was unable to seize the city. Helicopters hit Islamic State positions around the city overnight. 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 Shia majority in Iraq.
The fighting has started to draw in international support for Baghdad, 2 1/2 years after U.S. troops pulled out.
BOUKAMAL: ISIL, RIVALS CLASH OVER BORDER CROSSING
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting between rebel groups and their ISIL rivals is concentrated in the town of Boukamal on the border between Syria and Iraq.
ISIL controls much of northeastern Syria. In Iraq, it has recently captured cities and towns as well as border crossings, effectively erasing the frontier. The group says its Islamic state stretches from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala northeast of Baghdad, and has called on all Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to it.
Last week, beleaguered fighters of the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which has previously fought ISIL in opposition-held territory in northern and eastern Syria, defected and joined the Islamic State in Boukamal, effectively handing over the border town to the powerful group, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing.
Following ISIL's announcement of a caliphate, fighters in their northern Syrian stronghold of Raqqa paraded through the city to celebrate. Some revellers wore traditional robes and waved the group’s black flags in a central square, while others zoomed around in pickup trucks against a thundering backdrop of celebratory gunfire. Video of the celebrations was posted online, and activists in the city confirmed the details to Associated Press.
IDLIB: MORTAR ATTACK IN NORTHERN SYRIA KILLS 14
A barrage of mortar shells hit government-held areas of the northern city of Idlib on Monday, killing 14 people and wounding at least 40, Syrian state media said.
Idlib is the provincial capital in northwestern Syria and it has been under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s troops since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2011. Rebels trying to overthrow al-Assad’s government control the areas around the city. They have been besieging the city for more than two years, firing mortars into the government-held areas and clashing with Assad’s troops at its outskirts.
The state-run SANA news agency said mortars shells fell on several parts of Idlib on Monday afternoon, including a residential area and a market. State TV said children were among those who died in the attacks, and at least 40 people were wounded.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks. State TV blamed “terrorists” for the attacks, a term the Syrian government uses for rebels trying to overthrow Assad’s government.
ISIL: A CHALLENGE FOR MIDDLE EAST, AND AL-QAEDA
ISIL’s move, which follows a three-week drive for territory by 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, Shia-led government.
(Learn more about the Shia-Sunni divide and Iraq’s deadly sectarian war with The Globe’s easy explanation)
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 Islamic State has used alliances with other, less radical Sunni armed groups and tribal fighters who are disillusioned with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Members of Hussein’s secular Baath party have also fought in the revolt.
Its declaration of the Islamic State could isolate allies in Iraq and lead to infighting. 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 Shia Tehran.
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.
RAMADAN: TEMPERS FRAY AS REFUGEES BREAK FAST
Waving pots and pans, police pushed back dozens of hungry Iraqi refugees as they rushed to seize free food, ending their first day-long fast of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in an encampment for the displaced.
(Desperation and devotion: Browse a photo gallery of how Muslims around the world are marking Ramadan this week)
Shouting men scrambled Sunday to reach pots of rice, meat and chicken stew in this dusty, hot encampment some 100 kilometres from the northern city of Erbil, capital of Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region.
For Bashir Khalil, a 39-year-old Shiite, and his wife Nidal, a Sunni, Ramadan has been robbed of its rhythm of communal solidarity. The couple fled Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, after it was captured by ISIL earlier this month. He was under suspicion as a Shiite, and she was questioned because she worked as a cleaner in a Shiite charity. They returned days later after receiving assurances from local gunmen that they wouldn’t be harmed, but found their home had been damaged in clashes.
The Khalils have always been poor. But in their impoverished quarter of the city, neighbours shared their food. Here, when the food ended, there would be no more until another charity came by. “We don’t want this one or that one,” said Nidal Khalil, referring to the Shiite-dominated government and the Sunni insurgents. “Neither of them cares about us poor people.”
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Tikrit: Iraqi forces have tried multiple times to retake Saddam Hussein's hometown from ISIL, including renewed combat on the city's southern outskirts starting June 29. Troops and helicopter gunships hit ISIL positions in the Tikrit area, including the University of Tikrit campus in the city's north end.
Boukamal: This eastern Syrian town on the Iraq border was the site of clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing, and other rebel groups on June 30. ISIL has staked claim to territory on both sides of the border, declaring it a new medieval-style caliphate, or Islamic state.