BAGHDAD – A militant extremist group’s unilateral declaration of an Islamic state is threatening to undermine its already-tenuous alliance with other Sunnis who helped it overrun much of northern and western Iraq.
One uneasy ally has vowed to resist if the militants try to impose their strict interpretation of Shariah law.
Fighters from the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have spearheaded the offensive in recent weeks that has plunged Iraq into its deepest crisis since the last U.S. troops left in 2011. The group now controls territory stretching from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad in central Iraq.
In a bold move Sunday, the group announced the establishment of its own state, or caliphate, governed by Islamic law. It proclaimed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a highly ambitious Iraqi militant with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, to be the caliph, and it demanded that Muslims around the world pledge allegiance to him.
Through brute force and meticulous planning, the Sunni extremist group – which said it was changing its name to simply the Islamic State – has managed to effectively erase the Syria-Iraq border and lay the foundations of its proto-state. Along the way, it has battled Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias, and the Syrian and Iraqi militaries.
Now, the group’s declaration risks straining its loose alliances with other Sunnis who share the militants’ hopes of bringing down Iraq’s Shiite-led government but not necessarily its ambitions of carving out a transnational caliphate. Iraq’s minority Sunnis complain they have been treated as second-class citizens and unfairly targeted by security forces.
Topping the list of uneasy allies is the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, a Sunni militant organization with ties to Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath Party. The group depicts itself as a nationalist force that defends Iraq’s Sunnis from Shiite rule.
A senior Naqshabandi commander in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad told the Associated Press that his group has “no intention” of joining the Islamic State or working under it. He said that “would be a difficult thing to do because our ideology is different from the Islamic State’s extremist ideology.”
“Till now, the Islamic State fighters are avoiding any friction with us in the areas we control in Diyala, but if they are to change their approach toward our fighters and people living in our areas, we expect rounds of fighting with the Islamic State’s people,” said the commander, who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Fatima.
If history is any guide, they have reason to worry. In Syria, ISIS also cooperated with many rebel groups after initially pushing into the country in spring 2013. Over time, however, it moved against its erstwhile allies and eventually crushed them.
It has followed a similar pattern in imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic law, choosing to overlook some practices it considers forbidden before eventually tightening its grip and implementation.
Elsewhere in Syria, the announcement was greeted with condemnation and even disdain, including from rival rebel groups who have been fighting the Islamic State since January.
“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,” said Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam, an Islamist rebel group. “You cannot establish a state through looting, sabotage and bombing.”
In Iraq, where the government has launched a counteroffensive to try to claw back some of the territory it has lost, the declaration is viewed through the prism of the country’s rising sectarian tensions.
“This is a project that was well-planned to rupture the society and to spread chaos and damage,” said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker. “This is not to the benefit of the Iraqi people, but instead it will increase the differences and splits.”