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.