Middle East

Iraq crisis: Fighting in Tikrit after 'caliphate' declared

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Media captionThe BBC's Jeremy Bowen considers whether the Iraqi government can prevent the break up of the country

Fresh clashes have been reported between jihadist-led Sunni rebels and government forces around the Iraqi city of Tikrit.

Witnesses said there had been a wave of air strikes and that former President Saddam Hussein's palace had been hit.

A local source told the BBC the rebels had meanwhile seized parts of a nearby military base in a counter-attack.

It comes a day after the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) announced the creation of a "caliphate".

The Iraqi parliament is due to meet for the first time since April's elections.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose bloc came first, wants a third term, though observers say he is seen by many as having precipitated the current crisis through sectarian policies.

US President Barack Obama has announced he is sending about another 200 troops to protect the US embassy in Baghdad.

This means about 750 US troops are in and around Iraq, but President Obama has ruled out sending combat troops to fight alongside the Iraqi army.

US troops numbers in Iraq

The 750 total is made up of:

  • 180 military advisers assisting Iraqi security forces
  • 470 security personnel protecting the US embassy in Baghdad and US citizens
  • 100 troops going to Baghdad to provide security and logistics support, previously on standby in region

Source: US Pentagon

Repeated clashes

The rebels reportedly seized control of parts of the Speicher army base to the north of Tikrit on Monday, despite coming under attack from government helicopters.

The Iraqi army denied reports that the rebels had driven back a convoy coming to the aid of the base.

Tikrit was seized by Isis-led militants on 11 June as they swept across large parts of northern and western Iraq, and has been the scene of fierce clashes between the two sides in recent days.

On Friday, soldiers recaptured part of the campus of Tikrit University. An offensive over the weekend met stiff resistance and soldiers were said to have had to pull back to the town of Dijla.

On Sunday, Isis said it was establishing a caliphate, or Islamic state, on the territories it controls in Iraq and Syria.

It also proclaimed the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and "leader for Muslims everywhere".

Setting up a state governed under strict Islamic law has long been a goal of many jihadists.

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Media captionIsis fighters declared a caliphate in areas they control - 60-second explainer

Isis also said that from now on it would be known simply as "the Islamic State". Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group said, would be referred to as "Caliph Ibrahim".

Analysis: The BBC's Paul Adams in Baghdad

It's easy to dismiss the latest crop of Isis videos and statements as mere propaganda (however well produced), but the announcement of the establishment of a caliphate is rich with religious, cultural and historic significance.

Generations of Sunni radicals have dreamt of a moment when, in the words of Isis spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Muslims "shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace" and a new caliphate rises out of the chaos, confusion and despair of the modern Middle East.

Many Sunnis, and all Shia, will recoil in horror from the barbarism that has accompanied this moment, but the sight of old colonial-era boundaries being erased is a powerful statement, designed to attract new recruits to this whirlwind jihad.

In one of the Isis videos uploaded on Sunday, a bearded fighter called Abu Safiyya guides the viewer around a newly demolished border post. The video, with its arresting imagery and impressive production values, is designed to electrify the group's followers.

The fact that Abu Safiyya is described as being from Chile merely adds to what the authors hope is now the organisation's global appeal.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Iraqi soldiers have been patrolling other parts of the country to guard against assaults by Isis
Image copyright AP
Image caption Meanwhile, the fighting continues to displace thousands of civilians - these refugees are fleeing Mosul

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state in response to gains made by Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

In a speech in Tel Aviv on Sunday, he said the Kurds were "a nation of fighters and have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence".

The Kurds have long striven for an independent state but they remain divided between Syria and Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

The international community, including neighbouring Turkey and the US, remains opposed to the break-up of Iraq.

What is a caliphate?

  • An Islamic state ruled by a single political and religious leader, or Caliph
  • Caliphs are regarded by their followers as successors to Muhammad and sovereign over all Muslims
  • First caliphate came into being after Prophet Muhammad's death in 632
  • In the centuries which followed, caliphates had dominion in the Middle East and North Africa
  • The last widely accepted caliphate was abolished in 1924 by Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire
  • The Ahmadiyya sect of Islam has recognised a caliphate for the last century, but it is only this group that does so

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