BAGHDAD — Iraqi government officials said Sunday that Russian experts had arrived to help the army get 12 new Russian warplanes into the fight against Sunni extremists, while the extremists declared their leader the caliph, or absolute ruler, of all jihadi organizations worldwide.
The Russian move was at least an implicit rebuke to the United States, which the Iraqis believe has been too slow to supply U.S. F-16s and attack helicopters — although the United States is now in the process of providing both.
“In the coming three or four days the aircraft will be in service to support our forces in the fight” against the insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as the Islamic state of Iraq the Levant or ISIS), said Gen. Anwar Hama Ameen, the commander of the Iraqi air force.
He was referring to five SU-25 aircraft that were flown into Iraq aboard Russian cargo planes Saturday night, and two more expected later Sunday.
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He said Russian military experts would stay only a short time. The last five Russian aircraft would arrive by Monday, he said.
Last week, President Obama ordered 300 U.S. military advisers into the country, and the Iranians have reportedly sent advisers from their Republican Guards’ Quds Force.
At least three U.S. Special Forces teams are said to have deployed north of Baghdad in recent days, tasked with carrying out a survey of Iraqi forces to determine their condition and needs.
This was the first report of Russian military aides in the country, although Ameen said they were experts, not advisers.
U.S. officials, citing intelligence reports, have said Iran has been sending surveillance drones over Iraq as well as supplying the government with military equipment and support.
Also Sunday, ISIS announced the establishment of the Muslim caliphate and declared that its leader is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of ISIS.
The declaration made official what many observers had expected, a claim that ISIS is itself a nation state that stretches wherever Muslims live, not just an insurgent group battling governments in Iraq and Syria.
The proclamation came one day after the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which ended with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. That led to the redrawing of borders in the Middle East, including the one between Syria and Iraq that the Islamic State now says no longer exists.
One analyst called it the most significant development for Islamist extremists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
“The impact of this announcement will be global as al-Qaida affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it,” said Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar. “The Islamic State’s announcement made it clear that it would perceive any group that failed to pledge allegiance an enemy of Islam.”
The ISIS announcement also revealed Baghdadi’s alleged real name — Ibrahim Ibn Awwad Ibn Ibrahim Ali Ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Hashimi al-Husayni al-Qurashi — and said he would be known as Caliph Ibrahim for short.
In an audio statement released on the Internet Sunday, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani explained that all national, tribal or ethnic boundaries that now span the Muslim world had been ruled invalid by the Islamic State’s shura and that all Muslims were subject to the new caliphate’s authority or face judgment.
The decision to rule all of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims poses numerous issues, not the least of which will be the reaction of many of ISIS’ allies among Sunni tribes and secular former Baathist officials now helping it fight in Iraq.
Those groups will now have to either declare themselves followers of the caliphate, surrendering much of their authority to Baghdadi, or hold onto their roles as tribal or political leaders and be declared enemies of the caliphate.
The greatest impact, however, could be on the broader international jihadist movement, in particular on the future of al-Qaida.
Founded by Osama bin Laden, the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. has long carried the mantle of the international jihadi cause. But ISIS has managed to do in Syria and Iraq what al-Qaida never has — carve out a large swath of territory in the heart of the Arab world and control it.
“This announcement poses a huge threat to al-Qaida and its longtime position of leadership of the international jihadist cause,” Lister said.
Al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, took the reins of ISIS in 2010 when it was still an al-Qaida affiliate based in Iraq.
Since then, he has transformed what had been an umbrella organization focused mainly on Iraq into a transnational military force.
Al-Baghdadi has long been at odds with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, and the two had a very public falling out after al-Baghdadi ignored al-Zawahri’s demands that ISIS leave Syria.
Fed up with al-Baghdadi and unable to control him, al-Zawahri formally disavowed ISIS in February.
But al-Baghdadi’s stature has only grown since then, as ISIS fighters have strengthened their grip on much of Syria, and now overrun large swathes of Iraq.
Fight in Tikrit
The Islamic State’s declaration comes as the Iraqi government tries to wrest back some of the territory it has lost to the jihadi group and its Sunni extremist allies in recent weeks.
Sunni jihadi fighters were reported Sunday to have stalled a government offensive to retake the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. Insurgents had apparently regained control of key government buildings in the center of Tikrit, according to witnesses who reported seeing the black flag of ISIS flying over many important buildings.
The day before, Iraqi flags had been hoisted on many of them, as Iraqi troops carried out a ground assault after a three-daylong operation intended to take the city and roll back the insurgents’ advance toward Baghdad.
Iraqi forces carried out repeated airstrikes, mostly using helicopters, on insurgent targets throughout the city Sunday for the fourth day in a row, witnesses said.
The Iraqi army remained in control of roads leading into Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and a longtime stronghold of Sunni hard-liners, about 100 miles north of Baghdad — as well as the campus of Salahuddin University in Tikrit and a military base, Camp Speicher, on the outskirts of the city.
The military’s advance, supported by tanks and helicopter gunships, was hampered by a large number of bombs planted along the roads, a common tactic of the insurgents.
According to a security official in Tikrit, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of government policy, ISIS fighters had kidnapped six relatives of Maj. Gen. Jumaa al-Jabouri, deputy commander of Iraqi military operations in Salahuddin province, holding them hostage and destroying their homes in the eastern part of the city.
— Information from The Associated Press and McClatchy Washington Bureau is included.