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Jihadists declare 'caliphate,' claim world leadership

BAGHDAD -- Ruthless jihadists spearheading a Sunni militant offensive in Iraq have declared an “Islamic caliphate” and ordered Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to their chief, in a spectacular bid to extend their authority.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant renamed itself simply the Islamic State (IS) and declared its shadowy frontman the leader of the world's Muslims, in a clear challenge to al-Qaida for control of the global jihadist movement.

Iraqi forces meanwhile pressed a counter-offensive Monday against executed dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, one of a string of towns and cities overrun by IS-led fighters in a swift advance that left more than 1,000 people dead, displaced hundreds of thousands and piled pressure on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Maliki's bid for a third term in office has been battered by the offensive and he is no longer seen as the clear frontrunner when parliament reopens on Tuesday following elections in April.

IS announced Sunday it was establishing a “caliphate” — an Islamic form of government last seen under the Ottoman Empire — extending now from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyala province in eastern Iraq, the regions where it has fought against the regimes in power.

In an audio recording distributed online, the group declared its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “the caliph” and “leader for Muslims everywhere.” Henceforth, the group said, he is to be known as “Caliph Ibrahim” — a reference to his real name.

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This undated photo posted by the U.S. State Department on their Rewards for Justice website on June 18 shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the ...

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