BAGHDAD – The leader of the extremist group that has overrun parts of Iraq and Syria has called on Muslims around the world to flock to territories under his control to fight and build an Islamic state.
In a recording posted online Tuesday, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared he wants to turn the enclave his fighters have carved out in the heart of the Middle East into a magnet for militants. He also presented himself as the leader of Islam worldwide, urging Muslims everywhere to rise up against oppression.
The audio message came two days after al-Baghdadi’s group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, unilaterally declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land it controls. It also proclaimed al-Baghdadi the caliph, and demanded that all Muslims around the world pledge allegiance to him.
His group’s forceful seizure of territory and its pronouncement of a caliphate have transformed the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi into one of the leading figures of the global jihadi movement, perhaps even eclipsing al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri.
The blitz across Iraq has pushed the death toll there to levels unseen since the worst sectarian bloodletting in 2006 during the U.S. occupation. The United Nations said Tuesday that more than 2,400 Iraqis were killed last month. That tally would make June the deadliest month in Iraq since at least April 2005, when the Associated Press began tracking casualty figures there.
In his 19-minute address, al-Baghdadi said the Islamic state was a land for all Muslims regardless of nationality, telling them it “will return your dignity, might, rights and leadership.”
“It is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers,” he said, trying to broaden his base beyond the Middle East. “Muslims, rush to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The Earth is Allah’s.”
To help build that state, he appealed to those with practical skills – scholars, judges, doctors, engineers, former soldiers and people with administrative expertise – to “answer the dire need of the Muslims for them.”
In an appeal to Muslims worldwide, he said: “The time has come for you to free yourself from the shackles of weakness, and stand in the face of tyranny.”
Al-Baghdadi’s group – which has changed its name to simply the Islamic State – has managed to effectively erase the Syria-Iraq border and lay the foundations of its proto-state.
The Obama administration has been hesitant to send much military aid to Iraq for fear of dragging the U.S. into another yearslong Mideast war. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending in combat troops after withdrawing U.S. forces in 2011, but this week sent more soldiers to Baghdad to help bolster the U.S. Embassy. All told, officials said, there are about 750 U.S. troops in Iraq – about half of which are advising Iraqi counterterrorism forces.
In Washington, Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily said Baghdad would prefer to work with the U.S. but warned delays in U.S. aid have forced Iraq to seek help elsewhere. “Time is not on our side,” Faily said. “Further delay only benefits the terrorists.”