The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced this week that it has unilaterally established a caliphate in the areas under its control. It declared the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of its new self-styled state governed by Shariah law and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.
In his weekly address, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the militant group's announcement "is a message to all the states in the region that you are inside the red circle now."
With the support of other Sunni militants, the extremist group has overrun huge swaths of northern and western Iraq in recent weeks, including the country's second-largest city, Mosul. The blitz across Iraq appears to have crested, at least for now, as it reaches Shiite-majority areas, where resistance is tougher, and as it seeks to consolidate its control of the territory already in hand.
In what appeared to be a bid to peel away some of the extremist group's allies among Iraq's Sunni tribes, al-Maliki offered an amnesty "for all tribes and people who got involved in any act against the state."
"They should return to their senses. We are not excluding anybody, even those who committed misdeeds, apart from those who killed or shed blood," he said. "I welcome them to return and stand with the other tribes that have taken up arms."
Al-Maliki offered a similar amnesty after militants seized two cities in central Iraq early this year, but few if any Sunnis took up his offer.
With its recent gains, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant now controls a swath of land that stretches from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad in central Iraq. That has sent tremors across the region, particularly in the capitals of Iraq's neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran.
The United States, which withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq in 2011, is also keeping close tabs on events.
President Barack Obama has been hesitant to send much military aid to Iraq for fear of dragging the U.S. into another years-long Mideast war. The White House has ruled out sending in combat troops, but this week sent more soldiers to Baghdad to help bolster the U.S. Embassy. All told, officials say, there are about 750 U.S. troops in Iraq — about half of which are advising Iraqi counterterrorism forces.
U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft are also flying dozens of reconnaissance missions a day over Iraq to gather intelligence.
The Sunni insurgent's offensive is fueled, at least in part, by the Sunni minority's long list of grievances with al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government. They accuse al-Maliki, who himself is Shiite, of treating them like second-class citizens and unfairly targeting them with the security forces.
Iraq's new parliament met for the first time on Tuesday since April elections amid hopes for the swift formation of a new government. Those hopes quickly faded after the legislature deadlocked less than two hours into the meeting when Sunnis and Kurds walked out.
Al-Maliki acknowledged the failure of the first session, but expressed hope for a quick resolution when parliament meets next week.
"God willing, in the next session, we will overcome it through cooperation and openness and reality in choosing people and a mechanism that would lead us to a solid political process," he said.
The main sticking point is the job of prime minister, which holds the main levers of power. Under an informal system that took hold after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq's prime minister is chosen from the Shiite community, the president from the Kurdish minority and the speaker of parliament from the Sunni community.
Al-Maliki, who has held the post since 2006, is being pressed to step aside as his failure to promote reconciliation has been blamed for stoking the Sunni insurgency led by the al-Qaida splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Sunnis and Kurds, both of whom accuse al-Maliki of breaking promises and attempting to monopolize power, demand that he be replaced.
But al-Maliki has shown no willingness publicly to bow out. His bloc won the most votes in April elections, which traditionally would give him first crack at forming a new government. The current crisis in Iraq, however, has altered political calculations, and many of al-Maliki's former allies, and even key patron Iran, have begun exploring alternatives to replace him.
Still, al-Maliki has a track-record of outmaneuvering his rivals to retain power, and he is nothing if not a political survivor. At the same time, he needs allies to keep his job, setting the stage for what could be a drawn-out negotiation process.
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