By Sinan Salaheddin and Zeina Karam
BAGHDAD (AP) — The audacious declaration of the establishment of a new Islamic state made by the al-Qaida breakaway group that has overrun much of northern Syria and neighboring Iraq sparked celebrations in the group’s Syrian stronghold but was condemned by rival rebels and authorities in Baghdad and Damascus.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant unilaterally announced the creation of a new Islamic caliphate — a state governed by Shariah law — in an audio recording released late Sunday. The group proclaimed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of its new state, and demanded that Muslims everywhere pledge allegiance to him.
Through brute force and meticulous planning, the Sunni extremist group — which said it was changing its name to just the Islamic State, dropping the mention of Iraq and the Levant — has carved out a large chunk of territory that has effectively erased the border between Iraq and Syria and laid the foundations of its proto-state. Along the way, it has battled Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias and the Syrian and Iraqi militaries.
Following the group’s announcement, Islamic State fighters in their northern Syrian stronghold of Raqqa paraded through the city to celebrate. Some of the revelers wore traditional robes and waved the group’s black flags in a central square, while others zoomed around in pick-up trucks against a thundering backdrop of celebratory gunfire. Video of the celebrations was posted online, and activists in the city confirmed the details.
The announcement was greeted with condemnation and even ridicule elsewhere in Syria, including from rival Islamist rebel groups who have been fighting the Islamic State since January across northern and eastern Syria.
“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.”
Speaking over Skype from Eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, al-Shami described the declaration as “psychological warfare” which he predicted will turn people against the Islamic State.
In Iraq, where the government has launched a counteroffensive to try to claw back some of the territory lost to the Islamic State in recent weeks, 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.”
The Islamic State has seized upon widespread grievances among Iraq’s Sunni minority and opposition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government to help fuel its blitz through northern and western Iraq. Its offensive has prompted Shiite militias to reconstitute themselves, deepening fears of a return to the sectarian bloodletting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas, Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.