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Video Of Extremist Sunni Group's Leader Needs To Be Confirmed


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. In Iraq a high-speed takeover of cities and countryside by a Sunni extremist group and its allies seems to be settling into an entrenched occupation. Iraq security forces are battling the Islamic State. That's the descendent of an al-Qaeda group American soldiers once fought. But Iraqi troops are not making much headway and the group's propaganda is growing ever more grandiose. Last week the Islamic State declared it now rules over all Muslims, in a kind of Neo-medieval Islamic Empire it calls a caliphate. NPR's Alice Fordham joins us from Baghdad for more, good morning.


MONTAGNE: And of course here in the U.S. it's been a long weekend. So bring us up-to-date on what is happening there.

FORDHAM: Over the weekend there was what could be a big development. The leader of this extremist group apparently gave the Friday sermon at a mosque in Mosul, a big northern city that has that this group now more or less controls. We've known him as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which is what he was called when he led al-Qaeda in Iraq. But it seems he's renamed himself Caliph Ibrahim.

MONTAGNE: And this is a man who's, functionally, been in hiding. He's rather a mysterious character in that people have rarely seen him.

FORDHAM: Right, for a long time, like 10 years, he's been conducting operations, really from the shadows. All we had to go on were a couple of blurry photographs, which do kind of look like the man who appeared in the video, though he now has a long beard streaked with gray and he was wearing a black turban pulled low down over his eyes. It's not been confirmed that it was him, Iraqi officials are analyzing the video, as I'm sure are many other intelligence agencies. But if it was him, it could show that this group now wants to project this image that they're so powerful now that their leader is confident enough to speak publicly.

MONTAGNE: What sort of things, Alice, did this purported Caliph have to say?

FORDHAM: We can hear some of the prayers actually, it has been reported that he has a nice voice for leading prayers.


(Singing in Arabic)

FORDHAM: And then some of the substance of it as well.

(Sermon in Arabic.)

FORDHAM: What he's saying here are actually words of humility, that a heavy burden has been placed on me by God and my appointment as Caliph. Advise me when I get it wrong, follow me when I get it right. The other things that he said weren't really anything new. He said the month of Ramadan was a time to join his holy war. He said all innovation is evil, but the context is that in the past week in the city of Mosul, his group has really started to crack down and impose this Islamic law. People that live there are telling us about these Islamic State guys forbidding smoking for example. And they're also starting to crack down on their non-extremist allies that helped them get here. So for example, some of the generals from Saddam Hussein's army - from the old days - really (Unintelligible) them up as they floated it in to Mosul and took over. Now the Islamic State have said to those guys, you can lay down your weapons. You can join us or you can face unspecified consequences.

MONTAGNE: And Alice is this just a military response, is it too late for leaders of Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds to work on a political solution?

FORDHAM: Yeah, with everything so chaotic and violent it is easy to feel that politics is irrelevant now. But the fact is that a lot of people in these Sunni dominated provinces welcomed the Islamic State because they thought anything would be better than the Shiite led government, which they see as victimizing them. And these provinces won't be retaken without some local support. So yes, analysts do think it's important that the government presents a real alternative for them, which probably means a government without the incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He's really seen as the epitome of this sectarianism that they hate so much. However since elections in April the political factions have resisted pressure to come up with a new leader, to cut a deal and form a government. Really all the negotiation goes on in back rooms, so if there's a deal made it'll be made there.

MONTAGNE: And just this morning Iraqi state TV is reporting that Parliament won’t be meeting again until the middle of August. NPR's Alice Fordham speaking to us from Baghdad. Thanks very much.

FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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