The al-Qaeda splinter group that has declared a caliphate in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria released a video purporting to show its rarely seen leader delivering a sermon in the seized city of Mosul.
There were conflicting reports about the identity of the man in the video. An appearance by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, would signal a brazen challenge to Iraq’s government as it intensifies its offensive against the Islamic State, the militant group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
In the recording, posted on websites used by the group in the past, a bearded man in black robes and a turban climbs a set of stairs to a mosque pulpit before speaking, declaring himself Caliph Ibrahim.
“God has enabled your fighter brothers, and supported them with victory,” the robed man said in Arabic in the video, which carried the logo of al-Furqan, the group’s media wing. “If you find me right, support me, and if you find me wrong, advise me.”
The Associated Press quoted an unnamed senior Iraqi intelligence official saying that Baghdadi appears to be in the video. Authorities are checking the video to determine its authenticity, military spokesman Qassim Ata said in a televised news conference today.
The advance of Baghdadi’s Islamic State Sunni fighters through a swath of the nation’s northern and central provinces since last month has raised the risk of civil war and the possible fracturing of Shiite-dominated Iraq along religious and ethnic lines. The U.S. has sent advisers to support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and security forces, while pressuring Iraqi leaders to reach across sectarian divides to counter the guerrillas.
Maliki on July 4 vowed to seek to stay in office for a third term and defeat the militant group, in his most defiant message yet to political opponents who say his rule has alienated minority Sunni groups and clans, some of whom have swung behind the Islamic State.
“I’ll never give up on being the candidate for the premiership,” Maliki said in a statement. The prime minister said he had “promised God to keep fighting alongside the security forces until our enemies are defeated.”
Maliki’s State of Law party won the most seats in parliamentary elections in April while falling short of an outright majority. Politicians have been deadlocked since then over who will lead Iraq, and the first session of parliament adjourned last week without any decisions made on key posts even as the nation risks hurtling into renewed conflict.
Maliki has been under pressure from domestic opponents to step aside to allow the formation of a broad-based government that would give a greater say to Sunnis in an attempt to undercut the insurgency. The premier has stood firm and yesterday fired the chief of the army’s ground forces and the head of the federal police from their posts, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Shiite rivals of Maliki who have been jostling to replace him will need to win the support of Iran, which has underwritten several Iraqi governments since the American invasion of 2003 that ended the rule of Saddam Hussein.
In his latest intervention, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, on July 4 scolded lawmakers for failing to select a premier, president and speaker when they met three days earlier. He also repeated his previous calls for the new government to enjoy national backing.
“People were hopeful” that the parliament session would mark a new beginning, he said, according to comments relayed by Ahmed Al-Safi, a representative of Sistani in Karbala. The outcome “was an unfortunate failure. The new government must enjoy nationwide acceptability.”
The U.S. has readied to sell Iraq thousands of missiles and a second batch of Russian Sukhoi combat jets arrived in Baghdad last week as foreign powers moved to help Iraqi forces battle Baghdadi’s radical group.
Over the last few days, Iraq has launched air raids on territory in the west, near the border with Syria. Airstrikes have targeted an Islamic State meeting in al-Qaim city, killing and injuring many of those present, the Iraqi security forces said in a statement. Among them was the militants’ leader in the area, it said.
Government forces also repelled an attack on the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad that has been at the center of fierce fighting, killing 12 militants, according to a police statement yesterday.
Forty-six Indian nurses who had been caught in the Islamic State advance returned home yesterday aboard a special flight from Erbil in the largely autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, the Times of India reported. The insurgents had earlier driven the nurses to the edge of the territory they control, the paper said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Khalid Al-Ansary in Baghdad at firstname.lastname@example.org; Caroline Alexander in London at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at firstname.lastname@example.org Amy Teibel