BAGHDAD — A militant extremist group’s unilateral declaration of an Islamic state is threatening to undermine its already-tenuous alliance with other Sunnis who helped it overrun much of northern and western Iraq.
One uneasy ally has vowed to resist if the militants try to impose their strict interpretation of Shariah law.
Fighters from the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have spearheaded the offensive in recent weeks that has plunged Iraq into its deepest crisis since the last U.S. troops left in 2011. The group’s lightning advance has brought under its control territory stretching from northern Syria as far as the outskirts of Baghdad in central Iraq.
In a bold move Sunday, the group announced the establishment of its own state, or caliphate, governed by Islamic law. It proclaimed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a highly ambitious Iraqi militant with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, to be the caliph, and it demanded that Muslims around the world pledge allegiance to him.
Through brute force and meticulous planning, the Sunni extremist group — which said it was changing 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. Along the way, it has battled Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias, and the Syrian and Iraqi militaries.
Now, the group’s declaration risks straining its loose alliances with other Sunnis who share the militants’ hopes of bringing down Iraq’s Shiite-led government but not necessarily its ambitions of carving out a transnational caliphate. Iraq’s minority Sunnis complain they have been treated as second-class citizens and unfairly targeted by security forces.
Topping the list of uneasy allies is the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, a Sunni militant organization with ties to Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath Party. The group depicts itself as a nationalist force that defends Iraq’s Sunnis from Shiite rule.