Baghdad's battle to drive Islamic militants from Tikrit stalls as caliphate declared

Ongoing fighting in Tikrit appears not to have dislodged Sunni Islamic rebels, including fighters from a militant group whose leader has declared himself the caliph of a splinter state. 

Iraqi soldiers clashed with the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad, on June 30. On Monday, Iraqi troops battled to dislodge the Al Qaeda splinter group from the city of Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, but residents contacted there reported that it remained in militants' control.

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An Iraqi counteroffensive against Sunni Islamic rebels in the central city of Tikrit appears to have stalled amid heavy fighting, even as a leading extremist group declared its territory a new Islamic caliphate.

Residents of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, say that the city remains in control of the militants. According to Reuters, an Iraqi Army spokesman told reporters that the Army has "taken complete control of the University of Tikrit and they have raised the Iraqi flag on top of the building," which lies in the north of the city. However, residents in the city offered differing accounts, reports the Associated Press

The insurgents appeared to have repelled the military's initial push for Tikrit and remained in control of the city Sunday, but clashes were taking place in the northern neighborhood of Qadisiyah, two residents reached by telephone told the Associated Press.

Muhanad Saif al-Din, who lives in the city center, said he could see smoke rising from Qadisiyah, which borders the University of Tikrit. ...

Saif al-Din said the city had emptied out in recent days as people fled ahead of the anticipated clashes.

"Tikrit has become a ghost town because a lot of people left over the past 72 hours, fearing random aerial bombardment and possible clashes as the army advances toward the city," Saif al-Din said. "The few people who remain are afraid of possible revenge acts by Shiite militiamen who are accompanying the army. We are peaceful civilians, and we do not want to be victims of this struggle."

The Los Angeles Times notes that the Iraqi assault on Tikrit is the first major military operation since members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS, seized Mosul earlier this month. The US has counseled Iraq against rushing to retake cities, for fear that its army would become bogged down in urban warfare as the US military was during its occupation of Iraq. But the alternative may be to let the insurgents secure their territory and plan an offensive against Baghdad itself, the Times notes.

Meanwhile, ISIS declared the territory that it and other Islamic groups have seized in Iraq and Syria to be an Islamic caliphate, reports AP. Group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said that its territory would be called the Islamic State, with the group's leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi at its head.

The BBC's Jeremy Bowen said that "by using the word caliphate, they're harking back to the days of the Islamic empire that was set up at the time Muhammad. Muhammad died in the seventh century, and after that there were various caliphs who ruled the large territories that ... Muslim forces had conquered and imposed their religion on this large mass of people." He noted that the split of Islam into Shiite and Sunni sects dates from the era, over debate about who should lead the Islamic world: Muhammad's descendants, as Shiites believed, or selected qualified leaders, per Sunnis.

J.M. Berger, an extremism analyst, writes on Intelwire that the declaration of a caliphate could backfire on ISIS, as it implicitly threatens its Iraqi allies with subordinate status.

ISIS made its gains in Iraq as part of a coalition of Sunnis with grievances against the Maliki government. Those groups may have seen a temporary advantage in aligning with ISIS, but the pronouncement of the caliphate sends a clear message to all of ISIS's Iraqi partners that they are the subordinate parties in this alliance. ISIS may have cleared this move with its key allies in advance, but if it didn't, the power grab could splinter the very coalition that allowed it to seize territory in the first place.
 More significantly, the calculus of holding territory has now changed. Prior to the pronouncement, ISIS could have fallen back to its previous domain along the border of Iraq and Syria with little loss of face and a huge increase in its warfighting capabilities, thanks to captured weaponry and millions of dollars worth in stolen funds.
 Now, if ISIS is driven back, Baghdadi risks being seen as the man who grasped for the caliphate, held it in his hands for one brief shining moment, then lost it all.

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