The leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivers a sermon July 5 at a mosque in Iraq in a video posted online Saturday in what would be a rare — if not the first — public appearance by the shadowy militant. (AP)
BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials are working to determine the authenticity of a video that purportedly shows the leader of the Islamic extremist group that has seized large swaths of the country delivering a sermon this week in the nation’s second-largest city, authorities said Sunday.
The 21-minute video said to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State group, was reportedly filmed on Friday at the Great Mosque in the northern city of Mosul. It was released on at least two websites known to be used by the organization and bore the logo of its media arm.
Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi told reporters Sunday the country’s security services are still analyzing the video to verify whether the speaker is indeed al-Baghdadi, and that the government will “announce the details once they are available.”
The sermon in Mosul would the first public appearance for al-Baghdadi, an ambitious and notoriously elusive Iraqi militant with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. Since taking the reins of the group in 2010, he has transformed it from a local branch of al-Qaida into an independent transnational military force, positioning himself as perhaps the pre-eminent figure in the global jihadi community.
The purported showing in Mosul, a city of some 2 million that the militants seized last month, came five days after al-Baghdadi’s group declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the territories it has seized in Iraq and Syria. The group proclaimed al-Baghdadi the leader of its state and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.
Wearing black robes and a black turban, the man in the video said to be al-Baghdadi urges his followers to jihad, and emphasizes the implementation of a strict interpretation of Islamic law. He strikes an almost humble tone, telling listeners: “I am not better than you or more virtuous than you.”
A senior Iraqi intelligence official told The Associated Press on Saturday that an initial analysis indicated that the man in the video is indeed al-Baghdadi. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
In Mosul, a government airstrike early Sunday afternoon targeted the Rashidiyah neighborhood, residents said. A medical official in the city said seven people were killed and 30 wounded in the attack.
Both the residents and the official spoke on condition of anonymity over fears for their safety.
It was not clear what the target of the air raid was, and the Iraqi military could not immediately be reached for comment.
Over the past month, al-Baghdadi’s fighters have overrun much of northern and western Iraq, adding to the territory they already control in neighboring Syria. The Sunni group’s initial surge in Iraq has crested, at least for now, after having grabbed most of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab regions and reaching majority Shiite areas, where resistance is tougher.
One of the main battlefronts now is the country’s largest oil refinery near Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, where government forces are besieged by Islamic State group fighters.
Al-Moussawi, the military spokesman, said security forces repelled an overnight attack on the facility, killing around 20 militants and damaging eight vehicles. The casualty figures could not be independently verified.
The Sunni militant offensive has ramped up the pressure on Iraq’s political leaders to quickly form a new government that can confront the insurgents and keep the country from fracturing along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite whose State of Law bloc won the biggest chunk of the vote in April elections, is angling for a third consecutive term, and vowed last week he would not withdraw his candidacy — despite calls for him to step aside.
He has been widely accused of trying to monopolize power. Rivals and former allies alike say he has exacerbated the crisis by failing to pursue reconciliation with the country’s Sunni minority, which complains it is treated like second-class citizens by al-Maliki’s government.
Late Saturday, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr urged the State of Law bloc to put forward a candidate for prime minister other than al-Maliki, saying an alternative nominee “will help end the suffering.”
“It is necessary to demonstrate the national and paternal spirit for a higher and noble goal,” al-Sadr said in a statement released by his office. “I mean changing the candidates, which will be a welcome and blessed step during this hard time the country goes through.”
The political bloc that al-Sadr used to head controls 33 out of the 328 seats in parliament. Al-Maliki’s State of Law holds 92.
Also, Iran’s state news agency said an Iranian pilot named Shoja’at Alamdari Mourjani was killed while defending Shiite holy sites in the Iraqi city of Samarra, which is home to one of the most revered shrines in Shiite Islam. It said Mourjani was buried Friday in a village near Shiraz in southern Iran.
It was not clear in what capacity Mourjani was fighting in Iraq, nor how he was killed.
Iran, the regional Shiite power, has said it will provide any help necessary to help Iraq in its current crisis. Tehran has maintained close ties with successive Shiite-led governments in Iraq since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who oppressed the Shiites.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi contributed from Tehran.