BAGHDAD: 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.

Alarming regional and world powers, the Islamic State in Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) claimed universal authority, declaring its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was now caliph of the Muslim world – a title last widely recognised 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.

The move follows a three-week drive for territory by ISIS militants and allies among Iraqi’s Sunni populace. The caliphate aims to erase colonial-era borders and defy the US- and Iranian-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki in Baghdad.

It also poses a direct challenge to the global leadership of Al Qaeda, which disowned ISIS, and to conservative Gulf Arab rulers, who already view the group as a security threat.

Iraqi army attempted last week to take back Tikrit but was unable to seize the city. Helicopters hit ISIS positions overnight. On the southern outskirts, a battle raged into Monday, residents said.

The fighting has started to draw in international support for Baghdad, two-and-a-half years after US troops pulled out.

Armed and trained by the United States, Iraq’s armed forces crumbled in the face of the ISIS onslaught and have struggled to bring heavier weaponry to bear.

The Iraqi government has appealed for international help and accused neighbours, notably Saudi Arabia, of having fostered militancy in Syria and Iraq.

Iraqi army spokesman Qassim Atta said declaring a caliphate could backfire by showing that 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,” he said.

Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2014

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