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 the Levant, 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 grand 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.
After melting away in the initial onslaught, Iraq's military and security forces have regrouped and managed to stem the tide at the outskirts of Shiite-dominated regions. The country's political leaders, however, have been unable to bridge their differences to confront the militant threat, and failed again in parliament Tuesday.
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."
He also urged militants to escalate fighting in the holy month of Ramadan, which began Sunday.
"In this virtuous month or in any other month, there is no deed better than jihad in the path of Allah, so take advantage of this opportunity and walk the path of your righteous predecessors," he said. "So, to arms, to arms, soldiers of the Islamic state, fight, fight."
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."
The message was posted on militant websites where the group has issued statements before, and the voice resembled that on other recordings said to be by al-Baghdadi, who has rarely been photographed or appeared in public.
Al-Baghdadi's group has already attracted jihadi fighters from across the Arab world, the Caucasus and extremists from Europe and some from the U.S. In a few short years, the organization has been transformed from an al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq into a transnational military force that has conquered and held a massive chunk of territory. Al-Qaida's al-Zawahri expelled al-Baghdadi from the terrorist network earlier this year.
In the past year alone, al-Baghdadi's group – which has changed its name to simply the Islamic State, dropping the reference to Iraq and the Levant – has managed to effectively erase the Syria-Iraq border and lay the foundations of its proto-state.
The Sunni insurgents' advance in Iraq appears to have crested, at least for now, as it reaches Shiite-majority areas, where resistance is tougher, and as it seeks to consolidate its control of the territory already in hand.
But the group has continued to advance in Syria. On Tuesday, it captured the town of Boukamal near the Iraqi border. Its fighters advanced toward Shuheil, to the northwest, a stronghold of its al-Qaida-linked rival, the Nusra Front. As fighting intensified in the area Tuesday, thousands of Shuheil's residents were seen fleeing the town, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Al-Baghdadi's group also held a triumphant parade Monday in Raqqa, the largest city it controls in Syria. Fighters drove through the streets displaying material apparently captured in Iraq – U.S.-made Humvees, heavy machineguns, tanks and armored personnel carriers, and a flatbed truck carrying what appeared to be a Scud missile.
Online video showed militants carrying automatic rifles and black flags, sitting atop vehicles and driving through Raqqa, honking amid occasional bursts of gunfire. The video appeared genuine and matched AP reporting of the event.
The Obama administration has been hesitant to send much military aid to Iraq for fear of dragging the U.S. into another years-long 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.
Meanwhile, Iraq is increasingly turning to other governments like Iran, Russia and Syria for help.
Such an alliance could test the Obama administration's influence overseas and raise risks for the U.S. as some of its main global opponents consider joining 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."
In Baghdad, the new parliament deadlocked less than two hours into its first session when minority Sunnis and Kurds walked out, dashing hopes for the quick formation of a government.
Iraqi politicians are under pressure to form a more inclusive government that can bring backing from the Sunni Muslim minority, which holds deep grievances with Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki, who has held the post since 2006, is being pressed to step aside, with even some of his former allies blaming his failure to promote reconciliation for fueling Sunni support for the insurgency.
Acting speaker Mahdi al-Hafidh ended the proceedings after most of the 328-member legislature's Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers did not return from a short break, depriving parliament of a quorum.
The impasse prolonged what has already been days of intense jockeying among blocs trying to decide on a prime minister, president and parliament speaker.
The main sticking point is the job of prime minister, who holds the main levers of power. Under an informal system that took hold after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the prime minister is chosen from the Shiite community, the president from the ethnic Kurdish minority, and the speaker of parliament from the Sunni community.
Al-Maliki has shown no willingness to bow out. His bloc won the most votes in April elections, which traditionally would give him first crack at forming a government.
Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said the Sunnis walked out because they feel they need more time to reach an understanding to "change the course that has led the country to the current disaster."
"We do not want only to discuss the distribution of posts and the names of the candidates," he told AP. "Rather, we think we need to discuss how to change the behavior of the failing government."
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon thanked Saudi Arabia for contributing $500 million to the United Nations for humanitarian aid that will help support "the millions of Iraqi men, women and children whose lives have been torn apart by the conflict," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.