Iraqi government forces failed Monday to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit from heavily armed tribal militants, Al Hadath television reported on Monday evening, showing footage of the rebels still positioned in the city’s streets.
The al-Qaeda-inspired group the Islamist state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), backed by armed tribesmen, has taken control of swathes of northern Iraq alarming regional and international powers.
The group said on Sunday it was dropping the local element in its name and rebranded itself as “the Islamic State.” It named its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new “caliph” of the Muslim world - a mediaeval title last widely recognized in the Ottoman sultan deposed 90 years ago after World War One.
“He is the imam and caliph for Muslims everywhere,” group spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an online statement on Sunday, using titles that carry religious and civil power.
The move, which follows a three-week drive for territory by ISIS militants and allies among Iraqi's Sunni Muslim minority, aims to erase international borders drawn by colonial powers and defy Baghdad's U.S.- and Iranian-backed, Shiite-led government.
It also poses a direct challenge to the global leadership of al Qaeda, which has disowned it, and to conservative Gulf Arab Sunni rulers who already view the group as a security threat.
Fighters from the group overran the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 10 and have advanced toward Baghdad, prompting the dispatch of U.S. military advisers.
Maliki, with the help of Shiite sectarian militia, has managed to stop the militants from reaching the capital but security forces have been unable to take back cities they abandoned in the fighting.
The army attempted last week to take back the city of Tikrit but was unable to seize the city. Helicopters hit Islamic State positions around the city overnight. On the southern outskirts, a battle raged into Monday, residents in the areas said.
Tikrit was the home city of Saddam Hussein, whose overthrow by U.S. forces in 2003 ended a long history of domination by Sunnis over what is today a Shiite majority in Iraq.
The fighting has started to draw in international support for Baghdad, two and a half years after U.S. troops pulled out.
Both neighboring Arab Gulf states and the United States have blamed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian policies for the surge of violence.
White House Spokesman Josh Ernest told Al Arabiya's Nadia Bilbassy in Washington on Monday: “What we have been disappointed by is the fact that Prime Minister Maliki has not pursued the kind of inclusive governing agenda that we believe is going to be required to ensure the long-term success of the nation of Iraq.”
“And so we are in close touch with the Maliki government and with all the political leaders in Iraq. You've seen the number of phone calls between Secretary Kerry and Iraqi leaders and the Vice President Biden and Iraqi leaders in pursuit of encouraging the government to pursue a more inclusive agenda. And that's what we're focused on.”
He said when it comes providing military aid to Iraq, “there is one piece of military equipment that has attracted a lot of attention.
That's a delivery of F-16s, and scheduled for later this year. I can tell you that the United States remains committed to delivering the F-16s to Iraq as quickly as possible.”
Armed and trained by the United States, Iraq's armed forces crumbled in the face of the ISIS onslaught and have struggled to bring heavier weaponry to bear. Only two aircraft - turboprop Cessna Caravans normally used as short-range passenger and cargo carriers - are capable of firing the powerful Hellfire missile.
The U.S. is flying armed and unarmed aircraft in Iraq's airspace but says it has not engaged in fighting.
Russia has sent its first warplanes to Baghdad, filling an order for five second-hand Sukhois. The government said they will be operational within a few days.
In Falluja, just west of Baghdad where Islamic State fighters have been in control for six months, a bank accountant who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution said the announcement of the caliphate was a “step backward”.
“It will only turn the government even more hostile to us,” he said. “This will isolate us further from the rest of the world.”
The Islamic State has used alliances with other, less radical Sunni armed groups and tribal fighters who are disillusioned with Maliki. Members Saddam's secular Baath party have also fought in the revolt.
The Sunni Muslim militant group follows al Qaeda's hardline ideology, viewing Shiites as heretics.
Its declaration of the Islamic State could isolate allies in Iraq and lead to in-fighting. Such internal conflicts among rebel groups in Syria has killed around 7,000 people there this year and complicated the three-year uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Shiite Tehran.
Profile: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Profile: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi