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Iraq Battle Rages as World Reacts to ISIS Islamic Caliphate

Iraqi government forces are fighting ISIS militants for Tikrit while the group declared a new Islamic caliphate on Sunday.

by John Beck
Jun 30 2014, 6:55pm

Photo via AP/Karim Kadim

The battle for Tikrit continued today as Iraqi government forces tried to dislodge the militants, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who hold the city. Meanwhile, international observers, local politicians, and even other jihadists have reacted ISIS's newly formed caliphate.

Tikrit, which is the birthplace of Iraq's longtime former leader Saddam Hussein and located roughly 80 miles north of Baghdad, has been under the control of the hardline Sunni militants since they overran large swathes of the country earlier in the month.

Government soldiers have been attempting to take back the city since last week, and helicopter gunships reportedly struck militant positions on Saturday and Sunday night. So far, however, the army has been unable to clear the insurgents and fighting continued today, residents told Reuters.

The government's progress, or lack thereof, in taking it back is currently unclear. Video released by the military showed convoys of tanks moving towards Tikrit. However, the attack was reportedly repulsed and ISIS supporters have uploaded footage which they claimed showed the streets clear of security forces.

Yesterday, ISIS announced the restoration of an Islamic caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria it occupies and called on al Qaeda and other Sunni militant forces in the area to join them in acknowledging “a new era of international jihad."

The caliphate announcement was made by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who said the territory would stretch from Diyala in Iraq to Aleppo, Syria, and be headed by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Adnani also announced that the militant group would now be called simply "The Islamic State."

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An audio statement released by ISIS on Sunday claimed the caliphate is already a functional state with governors, courts, and taxes imposed on "infidels." ISIS is the world's wealthiest militant group and has developed a governance structure in parts of Syria. It has singlehandedly ruled the city of Raqqa since 2013 and implemented strict Islamic law. This includes bans on music and smoking, a special tax for Christians, and public floggings and executions for anyone who violates these rules.

So far the group has been more moderate in the Iraqi cities it controls, where residents previously told VICE News that new rules announced by ISIS had not been enforced. However, it implemented a similar strategy in Raqqa: initially offering aid and “advice” on strict Islamic practice, before becoming more extreme.

The announcement is 'likely the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11.'

The announcement is, according to Charles Lister, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Doha Center, "likely the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11." In an emailed briefing note, Lister said that it could split jihadi groups by forcing them to join or by default, oppose, the Islamic State.

"The Islamic State’s announcement made it clear that it would perceive any group that failed to pledge allegiance an enemy of Islam. Already, this new Islamic State has received statements of support and opposition from jihadist factions in Syria — this period of judgment is extremely important and will likely continue for some time to come."

Lister added that the announcement could lead to an expansion of ISIS activities into new countries and will likely increase violence in Iraq, either by turning other Sunni groups against ISIS or via the morale boost it will offer its followers. He said the caliphate will also threaten al Qaeda's position as leading purveyors of the international jihadi cause. The Washington Institute's Aaron Y. Zelin, who focuses on jihadi groups, said on Twitter that a number of jihadi leaders had already stated their opposition to the declaration.

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Rival Syrian rebel groups also dismissed the Islamic State, according to the Associated Press. "The gangs of al-Baghdadi are living in a fantasy world. They're delusional. They want to establish a state but they don't have the elements for it," Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Islamist Army of Islam group told AP.

The Iraqi government is evidently hoping that it will attract more support in its fight against ISIS, however. Army spokesman Qassim Atta commented that the group is now a global threat. "I believe all countries, once they read the declaration, will change their attitudes because it orders everybody to be loyal to it," he said, according to Sky News.

Others are less impressed. Footage of the caliphate's announcement being celebrated in Raqqa by its supporters was uploaded by a local media center on Sunday. In it, crowds cheer and firing weapons into the air. Aron Lund, former editor of the Carnegie Endowment for National Peace's Syria in Crisis, tweeted that if this was all the support the caliphate could manage, it may not have a long future.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck