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Battle continues unabated for Tikrit after jihadists declare 'caliphate'

Iraqi government forces are continuing their counteroffensive to recapture Tikrit from the hands of Sunni militants. The jihadists' declaration of an "Islamic caliphate" has meanwhile met with mixed reactions.

On Monday, Iraqi forces were continuing their bid to retake the northern city of Tikrit in a battle that could prove crucial in re-establishing the morale of security forces.

Tikrit, the hometown of former dicatator Saddam Hussein, was captured by Sunni militants led by jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over two weeks ago, during a lightning offensive that saw large swaths of northern and western Iraq seized by the militants.

Witnesses reported several air strikes on the city overnight, and an army officer said the Iraqi military controlled parts of the outskirts of the city. Reinforcements have arrived with tanks and artillery, according to a security source based north of the city.

Heavy clashes have also been reported from elsewhere in the country between Syrian rebel factions and ISIS fighters battling for control of a border crossing with Iraq.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting was concentrated in the town of Boukamal on the border between Syria and Iraq.

ISIS controls much of northeastern Syria in addition to the territories it has recently seized within Iraq itself.

Unilateral declaration

On Sunday, the al Qaeda breakaway group unilaterally declared the establishment of a transnational Islamic caliphate headed by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It also said it was changing its name to just the Islamic State.

It has called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance to the state, thus challenging both regional leaders and the leadership of al Qaeda, which has disowned the group.

The announcement was welcomed by Islamic State fighters in their northern Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, who paraded through the city to celebrate (photo above).

Widening divisions?

The declaration has met with condemnation and even ridicule elsewhere in Syria, including from rival Islamist rebel groups.

"The gangs of al-Baghdadi are living in a fantasy world. They're delusional. They want to establish a state but they don't have the elements for it," said Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the rebel group Army of Islam.

He predicted the declaration would turn people against ISIS.

This view is shared by Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics who said the pronouncement was likely to widen divisions between ISIS and its Sunni allies in Iraq.

On Monday, Iraqi army spokesman Qassim Atta told Reuters news agency that the declaration of a caliphate meant the group had become more dangerous.

"This declaration is a message by Islamic State not only to Iraq or Syria but to the region and the world," he said. "The message is that Islamic State has become a threat to all countries."

tj/mkg (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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