BAGHDAD: Self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made an unprecedented appearance in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which his forces helped capture last month, and ordered Muslims to obey him, according to a video posted online.
That marks a significant change for the shadowy jihadist, whose Islamic State (IS) group led a lightning offensive that overran swathes of five provinces north and west of Baghdad.
The onslaught has alarmed world leaders, displaced hundreds of thousands, and piled pressure on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as he seeks a third term in office following April elections.
The video posted on Saturday showed a portly man clad in a long black robe and turban with a long greying beard addressing worshippers at weekly prayers at Al-Nur mosque in central Mosul.
“I am the wali [leader]who presides over you, though I am not the best of you. So if you see that I am right, assist me,” said the man, purportedly Baghdadi.
“If you see that I am wrong, advise me and put me on the right track, and obey me as long as I obey God,” he added.
Text superimposed on the video identified the man as “Caliph Ibrahim,” the name Baghdadi took when the group on June 29 declared a “caliphate,” a pan-Islamic state last seen in Ottoman times, in which the leader is both political and religious.
The video is the first ever official appearance by Baghdadi, said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Islamist movements, though the jihadist leader may have appeared in a 2008 video under a different name.
Baghdadi is believed to have been born in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971, and joined the insurgency against the US military following the 2003 invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
He spent time in a US military prison and eventually took over leadership of a group, then affiliated with al-Qaeda and known as the Islamic State of Iraq, in 2010.
At the time, the group was believed to be on the ropes, but Baghdadi led it back to prominence.
Last year, the organization expanded into Syria, becoming a major player in the war to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Baghdadi subsequently cut all ties to al-Qaeda, and his influence now rivals that of that group’s global chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Influential Sunni Muslim scholar Yusef Al-Qaradawi, meanwhile, warned that the establishment of a caliphate by “a group known for its atrocities and radical views does not serve the Islamic project.”
The title of caliph can only be “given by the entire Muslim nation,” not by a single group, the cleric added.
IS is known for its brutality, executing and crucifying opponents, and photographs emerged on Saturday showing its militants demolishing Sunni and Shiite mosques and shrines in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province.
Iraqi security forces wilted when faced with the initial IS-led onslaught, and while they have since performed more capably, they have struggled to retake territory from insurgents.
An assault on Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit has gone on for more than a week without retaking the city, while a suicide car bomb killed 15 people on Friday near the sensitive shrine city of Samarra.