ISIS declare new 'caliphate'; Syrian rebels resist

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on June 29 announced the establishment of a "caliphate," and  declared its own chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be the caliph and "leader for Muslims everywhere." Said ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani: "The Shura [council] of the Islamic State met and discussed this issue [of the caliphate]... The Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims... The jihadist cleric Baghdadi was designated the caliph of the Muslims." The statement said the group is to be henceforth known simply the Islamic State. "The words 'Iraq' and 'the Levant' have been removed from the name of the Islamic State in official papers and documents," Adnani said, describing the caliphate as "the dream in all the Muslims' hearts" and "the hope of all jihadists." (Al Arabiya, June 29)

Iraq: cultural cleansing in Mosul

The ISIS militants that have seized Iraq's northern city of Mosul have, not surprisingly, been engaging in a campaign of cultural cleansing—targeting not only the city's inhabitants, but its artistic and historical treasures. Religious buildings, cemeteries and public art have been destroyed or defaced, witnesses say. Among the destroyed works are sculptures of 19th-century musician and composer Osman al-Muesli and Abbasid-era poet Abu Tammam. The grave of Ibn Athir, a philosopher and chronicler who travelled with Saladin during the 12th century, is also reported destroyed. ISIS consider visiting religious sites to be idol worship, and have also destroyed many shrines and other ancient buildings in Syria. A jizya tax has been imposed on the city's Christian population, but most of the area's Christians—some 160 families—fled before the ISIS advance. (Aydinlik, Turkey, June 21) 

Iraq: Sufis resist ISIS in Kirkuk

Fighting erupted on June 20 between ISIS militants and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order in Hawija, Kirkuk governorate (also rendered Tamim). AFP calls it "a potential sign of the fraying of the Sunni insurgent alliance that has overrun vast stretches of territory north of Baghdad in less than two weeks." The Naqshbandi fighters, known by their Arabic acronym JRTN, had apparently refused an ISIS demand to give up their weapons and pledge allegiance to the Qaedist force. AFP cited analysts to the effect that ISIS is actually struggling to maintain control over a broad alliance of Sunni and even Ba'athist militants who were brought together to oppose Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian rule but do not share the Qaedist ideology. Toby Dodge, head of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, said the "radical" and "ludicrously absurd" politics of ISIS "can't help but break that coalition."

Obama to send 300 military 'advisors' to Iraq

President Obama said June 19 that he is prepared to send up to 300 US military advisors to Iraq to help government forces beat back the ISIS militants that have seized up to a third of the country. In a national address, Obama said the US team will assess how best to "train, advise and support" Iraqi forces—and that the new advisors will be "prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine the situation on the ground requires it." But he emphasized: "American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well." (Chicago Tribune, ABC, June 19) We noted at the time that the supposed US "withdrawl" from Iraq in 2011 was largely fictional, with thousands of military contractors and hundreds of "advisors" to stay behind. While news accounts have not made clear how many "advisors" are already in Iraq, Obama referred to the new force as "additional military advisors." (AP) The phrase "targeted and precise military action" makes clear that the distinction between "advisors" and "combat forces" is also largely fictional.

ISIS behind West Bank abductions?

Israel's Haaretz reported June 14 that a "Pamphlet Number 1" issued in the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and circulated around Hebron is claiming responsibility for the abduction of three Israelis in the West Bank—but the statement's authenticity is in doubt. The account notes that a "similar case occurred two years ago, when Palestinian groups carried out operations under the banner of the Nusra Front," which similarly rose to prominence in the Syrian civil war as the leader of the Islamist rebels. In other words, aspiring local jihadists may be adopting the names of the Syrian Qaedists to cash in on their cachet. Of course given al-Qaeda's franchise model, real organizational ties may follow appropriation of the name. Other groups operating in Sinai and Gaza such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claim affiliation to al-Qaeda, "while Arab governments sometimes term Salafi groups in their territories as Al-Qaida to legitimize their suppression." Algemeiner reports that Reuter's Jerusalem bureau fielded a call from one "Dawlat al-Islam," identified as an ISIS branch operating in Hebron, claiming responsibility for the abductions.

ISIS: too radical for al-Qaeda?

Iraq's military claims to have retaken most of Salaheddin governorate and even parts of Nineveh from the ISIS militants who have swept south towards Baghdad in recent days. But the claims are disputed by anonymous "security officials in Baghdad and Samarra" who told CNN that up to 70% of Salaheddin remains in ISIS hands. The Pentagon has ordered the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush into the Persian Gulf from the north Arabian Sea, in apparent readiness to launch air-strikes agianst ISIS-held territories. Even the very name of the carrier seems designed to antagonize and humiliate Iraq's Sunnis, augmenting the propaganda assistance that will be loaned to ISIS with every US missile that falls.

Kurds take Kirkuk, ISIS press offensive

Kurdish forces announced that they have taken full control of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled before the ISIS offensive nearby Nineveh governorate. "The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga," Kurdish spokesman Jabbar Yawar told Reuters. "No Iraq army remains in Kirkuk now." The fall of Mosul, Nineveh's capital and the country's second city, to ISIS threatens to unravel the delicate political balance in Iraq's north. Kirkuk and the surrounding governorate of Tamim (see map) has long been at the heart of a dispute between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds. ISIS is reported to be shelling areas south of Kirkuk. "After their defeat by the Peshmerga, the ISIS are now shelling the liberated areas from a distance, using seized Iraqi weapons," said Anwar Haji Osman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's deputy minister of Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed force.

Iraq: half a million flee Mosul; ISIS advance south

An estimated half a million have fled Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, since it was seized by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) June 10. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the takeover of Mosul, capital of Nineveh governorate, has "displaced over 500,000 people in and around the city." Most are taking refuge in the neighboring Kurdish autonomous zone. Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International's Middle East deputy program director, urged: "The Kurdistan Regional Government and neighboring countries must provide civilians fleeing the conflict with refuge. The international community must also provide support towards the humanitarian needs of people displaced as a result of the violence.” (Al Jazeera, AI, June 11) Following the fall of Mosul, ISIS militants have been advancing south, towards Baghdad. On June 11 they seized Tikrit, capital of Salaheddin governorate, just 150 kilometers from Baghdad. The Salaheddin cities of Tuz Khourmatu and Baiji are likewise reported to have fallen. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki vowed to resist the offensive and punish those in the security forces who fled after offering little or no resistance. (UN News Centre, AFP, BBC News, June 11)

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