30 Jun 2014

Iraq troops battle for Tikrit as Islamic state declared

Iraqi troops battle to dislodge an al-Qaeda splinter group from the city of Tikrit after its leader was declared caliph of a new Islamic state across the Syria-Iraq border.

Islamist militants claimed universal authority under their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Sunday, discarding their previous title Isis for the simpler IS. The group have demanded that all other jihadi groups pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, who would be known as “Caliph Ibrahim.” The declaration came at the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

The message is that Islamic State has become a threat to all countries. Qassim Atta

Iraqi government spokesman Qassim Atta told Reuters that declaring a caliphate could backfire: “I believe all the countries, once they read the declaration, will change their attitudes because it orders everybody to be loyal to it,” he said. “This declaration is a message by Islamic State not only to Iraq or Syria but to the region and the world.”

Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

"Shadowy", "anonymous" and "feared" -- the adjectives used to describe Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State (until recently the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or Isis). What do we think we know about the extremist Sunni leader?

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have been born in Samarra, roughly 80 miles north of Baghdad, in 1971 (making him around 43 years old). Reports suggest he was a cleric in the city around the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He was held in custody by the Americans between 2005 and 2009, and is reported to have told his captors as he was transferred to Iraq "I'll see you in New York". He was later freed by the Iraqi government.

Al-Baghdadi emerged as the leader of the al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq in 2010 when he replaced Abu Omar al-Baghdadi -- who had been killed in an American and Iraqi raid near the Iraqi city of Tikrit.

He is described as a well-educated man, but also a ruthless battlefield tactician -- potentially a more appealing leader to young jihadists that al-Qaeda's 63-year-old theologian leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Indeed, the surge of the Islamic State follows al-Baghdadi shunning al-Qaeda by moving the group into Syria (to become Isis) and then rejecting al-Zawahiri's calls to retreat back into Iraq.

The Islamic State has released statements mocking al-Qaeda as a "joke", and analysts have suggested that the declaration of the caliphate is an "act of war".

Kurdish independence

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Kurdish statehood, taking a position that appeared to clash with US preferences to keep Iraq united.

The Kurds have seized on the sectarian crisis in Iraq to expand their northern territory to include Kirkuk, which sits on vast oil deposits and could potentially allow them to create an independent state.

“We should … support the Kurdish aspiration for independence,” Mr Netanyahu told Tel Aviv University’s INSS think-tank. Kurds, hesaid, “are a fighting people that has proved its political commitment, political moderation, and deserves political independence”.

UK involvement

Russian fighter jets were delivered to Iraq but Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated it would be unwise for Britain to become involved in the country’s internal conflict.

They are facing a lethal threat, a mortal threat, in the Iraqi state. Foreign Secretary William Hague

“I do not think it would be wise to have a British military intervention in this situation, and if there is any military intervention then the United States has the best assets and capabilities to do that,” Mr Hague told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme.

“It isn’t for us, and it wouldn’t help anyone in Iraq, for us to pronounce on who should be the prime minister of Iraq but there has been a failure in recent years to bring together Iraqi leaders and people out of their sectarian divisions – nobody has succeeded in doing that in Iraq over the last eight years or so.”

Mr Hague recently returned from a visit to Iraq, where he met with Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish leaders.


In recent days government forces have been fighting back against the Isis rebels, relying on commandos flown in by helicopter to defend the country’s biggest oil refinery at Baiji.

Iraqi forces battle for Tikrit

A successful operation to recapture territory inside Tikrit would deliver a major blow against the insurgency which has struck into the Sunni heartland north and west of Baghdad.

Iran has said it is ready to help fight the armed revolt using the same methods it deployed against opposition forces in Syria.