BAGHDAD – Fresh from success in Iraq, a Sunni extremist group tried to tighten its hold Wednesday on territory in Syria and crush pockets of resistance on land straddling the border where it has declared the foundation of an Islamic state.
Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that the entire region is endangered by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose gunmen have rampaged across his country in recent weeks. Facing pressure to step aside, al-Maliki said the focus must be on countering the threat – not wholesale leadership changes.
The militant group has fed off the chaos and supercharged sectarian atmosphere of Syria's civil war to seize control of a large chunk of territory there. With its recent blitz across Iraq, it has expanded its gains while also effectively erasing the border between the two countries and laying the groundwork of its proto-state.
Led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group this week unilaterally declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land it has seized. It also proclaimed al-Baghdadi the head of its new self-styled state governed by Shariah law and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.
Its assault in Iraq appears to have slowed after sweeping across the predominantly Sunni Arab areas and encountering stiff resistance in Shiite-majority regions. But in Syria, al-Baghdadi's group has forged ahead with an offensive against towns and villages held by rival rebels along the Euphrates River in the eastern province bordering Iraq.
Militants stormed houses in the frontier town of Boukamal, rounding up people suspected of opposing them, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The extremist group captured Boukamal on Tuesday, after fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front defected.
Al-Baghdadi's fighters also were battling rival factions at the northern entrance to the nearby town of Sheheil, a Nusra Front stronghold, forcing thousands of residents to flee.
The group – which has changed its name simply to the Islamic State – is reviled by most Syrian rebel groups, and many of them have been locked in a bloody six-month battle with it across northern Syria that has killed more than 7,000 people. A few smaller rebel factions have pledged loyalty to al-Baghdadi's organization out of fear or convenience, but most factions in Syria oppose it.
On Wednesday, nine Syrian rebel groups, including a powerful coalition called the Islamic Front, rejected al-Baghdadi's declaration of a caliphate. In a statement posted on Islamic websites, they said the declaration was "void" and pledged to continue the fight.
In Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of al-Baghdadi's group, activists said the extremists displayed more heavy weaponry believed to have been looted from Iraqi military bases.
Video posted by activists showed what appeared to be an Islamic State leader asking a group of people in a mosque, including children, to pledge loyalty to al-Baghdadi. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting.
"Before, it was enough if you showed them support; now they're asking people to swear allegiance," said a Raqqa-based activist who spoke condition of anonymity because he fears retribution. He and other activists said the group also was punishing and jailing people suspected of breaking the traditional dawn-to-dusk fast for the holy month of Ramadan, which began Sunday.
In his weekly address, Iraq's prime minister warned that the group's self-proclaimed caliphate meant "no one in Iraq or any neighboring country will be safe from these plans." The group's declaration was "a message to all the states in the region that you are inside the red circle now," al-Maliki said.
The failure of al-Maliki's Shiite-led government to promote reconciliation is being blamed for fueling the Sunni insurgency. Sunnis and Kurds, both of whom accuse him of breaking promises and trying to monopolize power, demand that he be replaced.
Al-Maliki did not directly address calls to step down, but he did say the focus should be on turning back the militants – and not political changes.
"The priority today in the battle is security and the security challenges and the plots being formed by the terrorist organizations leaning on a sectarian program. The battle today is first before everything," he said. "It is a battle for security, a battle to protect Iraq, and Iraq's unity and identity, and the identity of the public and their security and economy."
The new parliament met Tuesday for the first time since April's elections amid hopes for the swift formation of a government. But lawmakers deadlocked less than two hours into the meeting, and Sunnis and Kurds walked out.
Al-Maliki acknowledged the failure of the first session, but expressed hope for a quick resolution when parliament meets next week.
"God willing, in the next session, we will overcome it through cooperation and openness and reality in choosing people and a mechanism that would lead us to a solid political process," he said.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke Wednesday with parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and they agreed on "the importance of Iraqis moving expeditiously to form a new government capable of uniting the country," the White House said.
However, White House officials acknowledged that those efforts were not meeting expectations. "Based on the fact that those leaders met yesterday, that they were urged to act promptly to form a new government, but they walked away without an agreement is an indication that that process is not off to a good start," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
In what appeared to be a bid to peel away some of the extremist group's allies among Iraq's Sunni community, al-Maliki offered an amnesty "for all tribes and people who got involved in any act against the state." He said the offer covers everyone, except those with blood on their hands.
He offered a similar amnesty after militants seized two central Iraqi cities early this year, but few if any Sunnis accepted.
The quick success of the Sunni militants – spearheaded by al-Baghdadi's group – has sent tremors across the region, particularly in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran. The United States, which withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq in 2011, is also keeping close tabs on events.
President Barack Obama has been hesitant to send much military aid to Iraq for fear of dragging the U.S. into another long war. The White House has ruled out sending combat troops, but this week dispatched more soldiers to Baghdad to help bolster the U.S. Embassy. Officials say there are about 750 U.S. troops in Iraq — about half of which are advising Iraqi forces. U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft are also flying dozens of reconnaissance missions a day over Iraq to gather intelligence.
Meanwhile, Iraq is increasingly turning to other governments like Russia, Iran and Syria for help.
Iraqi air force commander Lt. Gen. Anwar Hama Amin told the AP a third batch of Russian-made Su-25 warplanes arrived in the country Wednesday, bringing the total delivered to 13. He said all 13 planes were second-hand aircraft purchased from Russia to help fight the insurgents.