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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Monday, May 21, 2018

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Iraqi forces battle to retake Tikrit as ISIL declares caliphate

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BAGHDAD - Fresh clashes have broken out between jihadist-led Sunni militants and Iraqi government forces in the Iraqi city of Tikrit even as the Al-Qaida linked militants declared an Islamic "caliphate" in the vast stretches of area straddling Iraq and Syria that have fallen under their control.

The Iraqi army was locked in a fierce battle with the militants to take back Tikrit, 160 km north of Baghdad. Helicopters hit positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) overnight in Tikrit.

On the southern outskirts, a battle raged into Monday, residents said.

In a move that has alarmed regional and world powers, the ISIL declared its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph of the Muslim world - a title that was widely recognised by the Ottoman empire.

"He is the imam and caliph for Muslims everywhere," group spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an online statement on Sunday.

The announcement was made on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is expected to trigger infighting among Sunni extremist factions.

"The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations become null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas," said Abu Mohammed al-Adnani.

"Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day," he added in an audio statement posted online.

Adnani said that with the establishment of the caliphate, the group was changing its name to just the Islamic State and dropping the mention of Iraq, Sham and the Levant.

In a map widely shared by ISIL supporters on social networks, the Islamist group outlined a five-year plan on how they propose to expand their boundaries beyond Muslim-majority countries into North Africa, large parts of western Asia and in parts of Europe.

The United States is rapidly stepping up its surveillance activity over Iraq, including flying between 30 to 35 drone flights daily, some of them armed with air-to-surface missiles. The surveillance is aimed at assessing the strength of the ISIL forces and identifying targets for possible future missile strikes against them.

In another move, about 200 of the 300 special advisers ordered to Iraq by President Barack Obama are on the ground in the country.

The advisers will help to assess the scope for possible US strikes. Many of the advisers are Special Forces personnel. While some will remain in Baghdad, others will fan out to joint command centres beyond the capital.

"We have to improve our surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence there," President Obama told ABC News on Sunday, reiterating that targeted air strikes remain an option.

"Special Forces are going to have a role. And there are going to be times where we take strikes against organisations that could do us harm."

In another development, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has voiced support for Kurdish statehood, calling for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan as part of a broader alliance with moderate forces across the region.

The US has said that Iraq should stand together in the face of ISIL and other jihadists.>BNN

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