The leaders of an Al Qaeda splinter group that has seized vast portions of northern and western Iraq have declared the establishment of an Islamic state and demanded allegiance from other Muslim groups.
In an audio statement posted online that coincided with the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a spokesman for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), announced that the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was the "caliph," or leader, of a state whose territory extended from the city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria, to Diyala province in northeastern Iraq.
The spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, described al-Baghdadi as "the imam and khalifah (caliph) for the Muslims everywhere." He also said that with the establishment of the caliphate, the group was changing its name to just the Islamic State, dropping the mention of Iraq and the Levant.
"The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas," al-Adnani continued. "Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day."
Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state, or caliphate, that ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and beyond in various forms over the course of Islam's 1,400-year history.
But experts predicted the declaration could herald infighting among the Sunni militants who have joined forces with the Islamic State in its fight against the Shiite-led government.
"Now the insurgents in Iraq have no excuse for working with ISIS if they were hoping to share power with ISIS," Aymenn al-Tamimi, an analyst who specializes in Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, told The Associated Press. "The prospect of infighting in Iraq is increased for sure."
The greatest impact, however, could be on the broader international jihadist movement, in particular on the future of Al Qaeda.
Founded by Usama 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 the Islamic State has managed to do in Syria and Iraq what Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda and its long-time position of leadership of the international jihadist cause," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, in emailed comments. "Taken globally, the younger generation of the jihadist community is becoming more and more supportive of (the Islamic State), largely out of fealty to its slick and proven capacity for attaining rapid results through brutality."
Al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi militant who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, took the reins of the Islamic State in 2010 when it was still an Al Qaeda affiliate based in Iraq.
Al-Baghdadi has long been at odds with Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, and the two had a very public falling out after al-Baghdadi ignored al-Zawahri's demands that the Islamic State leave Syria. Fed up with al-Baghdadi and unable to control him, al-Zawahri formally disavowed the Islamic State in February.
But al-Baghdadi's stature has only grown since then, as the Islamic State's fighters have strengthened their grip on much of Syria, and now overrun large swathes of Iraq.
In Washington, the Obama administration called on the international community to unite in the face of the threat posed by the Sunni extremists.
"[ISIS]'s strategy to develop a caliphate across the region has been clear for some time now. That is why this is a critical moment for the international community to stand together against [ISIS] and the advances it has made," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
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 allies in recent weeks.
On Sunday, Iraqi helicopter gunships struck suspected insurgent positions for a second consecutive day in the northern city of Tikrit, the predominantly Sunni hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
The insurgents appeared to have repelled the military's initial push for Tikrit, and remained in control of the city on Sunday, but clashes were taking place in the northern neighborhood of Qadissiyah, two residents reached by telephone said.
Muhanad Saif al-Din, who lives in the city center, said he could see smoke rising from Qadissiyah, which borders the University of Tikrit, where troops brought by helicopter established a bridgehead two days ago. He said many of the militants had deployed to the city's outskirts, apparently to blunt the Iraqi military attack.
Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the provincial operation command, told The Associated Press the U.S. was sharing intelligence with Iraq and has played an "essential" role in the Tikrit offensive.
Washington has sent 180 of 300 American troops President Barack Obama has promised to help Iraqi forces. The U.S. is also flying manned and unmanned aircraft on reconnaissance missions over Iraq.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.