- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2014

U.S. intelligence officials confirmed Monday that the shadowy leader of a Sunni terrorist group wreaking havoc in Iraq made a rare public appearance in Mosul last week — a display that signals the militants’ growing confidence in their gains even as the country’s divided political blocs failed to reach consensus on a new government to counter the al Qaeda-inspired extremists.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appeared to preside over prayers Friday at the Great Mosque in Iraq’s second-largest city, which ISIL overran last month. A videotape of the appearance circulated on jihadist websites over the weekend.

U.S. officials on Monday verified that the black-robed figure delivering the 30-minute sermon was al-Baghdadi, whom many counterterrorism specialists in Washington have described as “the next bin Laden.”

“There is no reason to doubt that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi presided over prayers in Mosul last Friday,” one U.S. official said Monday. The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of sensitivity surrounding Western intelligence assessments of the ISIL leader, who last month announced the creation of a Muslim caliphate spanning from northern Iraq several hundred miles west into Syria.

“After declaring the so-called caliphate, it was a fairly logical — albeit unprecedented — next step,” the official said. “That said, the broader appeal of Baghdadi’s message to Sunni communities in Iraq and elsewhere is still very much in question.”

That al-Baghdadi would appear in public after years of building and running ISIL from hideouts in the region suggests the group has growing confidence in its ability to control the security environment around him — if only in Mosul, a city of some 2 million people.

It also casts an unsettling specter over the political impasse gripping the fledgling Western-style democracy in Baghdad.

On Monday, Iraq’s divided political blocs delayed a highly anticipated session to name a new prime minister, president and speaker of parliament — the latest signal that the government in Baghdad is in shambles. The development flew in the face of Obama administration attempts to get Iraq’s Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders to form a government some nine weeks since elections were held.

The legislature had been slated to convene Tuesday after April elections in which a Shiite political bloc controlled by Iraq’s current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, won a majority of seats in parliament.

But the security meltdown outside the capital has prompted delays, along with a significant campaign for the ouster of Mr. al-Maliki, who has served as prime minister since 2006.

The Obama administration and several U.S. allies in the region have called for Iraq to embrace a leader who might inspire more inclusion among the nation’s Sunni tribes — several of which have been seen to be supporting ISIL out of frustration with the policies pursued during recent years by Mr. al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government.

But with squabbling rampant among the sectarian blocs, the process has nearly ground to a halt in Baghdad. Early Monday, the acting speaker of parliament said Tuesday’s session had been canceled and that the legislature would not meet again until mid-August.

Hours later, however, amid uproar over that announcement, speaker Mahdi al-Hafidh claimed a preliminary agreement had been reached for a session to be held Sunday. Even that was uncertain Monday night, since Mr. al-Hafidh added that an announcement would not be made official until Tuesday.

In Washington, the Obama administration appeared sobered by the developments, and officials sought to downplay suggestions that the discord in Baghdad was spinning out of control.

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki asserted that the mid-August delay was not permanent.

“Our view is, that’s not set in stone, that they still have the ability to move forward more quickly than what they outlined,” she said.

“It’s urgent that all parties in Iraq take concrete steps to form a new government as quickly as possible under the constitution,” she said. “That’s what we’re conveying to all parties on the ground.”

While President Obama oversaw the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Iraq in 2011, the administration has appeared to be using the potential of renewed U.S. military engagement as a way to help persuade Iraqi political leaders to move quickly toward forming a new and more inclusive government.

In addition to roughly 750 U.S. troops in Iraq to provide security at the U.S. Embassy and the airport in Baghdad, the Pentagon said last week that some 200 U.S. military advisers are also on the ground inside Iraq to establish two “joint operations” centers with Iraqi military forces.

It was not clear whether, in light of the delays in Baghdad, the Obama administration may be willing to engage in some form of direct U.S. military action against ISIL — presumably in the form of drone strikes — regardless of whether Iraq is able to form a new government.

Administration officials initially said a government needed to be formed so it could take the lead in any military operations against ISIL.

But Mrs. Psaki said Monday that “we’re looking at a dire situation on the ground” and that the “president has the prerogative to take any steps he chooses.”

A slightly different message emanated from the White House. Spokesman Josh Earnest stressed that “additional military involvement will only be done in coordination with tangible commitments from Iraq’s leaders to pursue a more inclusive government agenda.”

“The reason for that,” Mr. Earnest said, “is that this existential threat that’s posed by ISIL certainly has a security dimension to it, but it only highlights the degree to which Iraq is vulnerable to sectarian divisions.”

Such divisions may well be woven beneath ISIL’s rise, but the public emergence of the group’s leader has added a disturbing dimension to the situation.

U.S. officials monitoring the fast-shifting landscape of al Qaeda-inspired militancy in the Middle East in recent years have been on the lookout for a single figure who might emerge to match the jihadist charisma and global mystique once held over Sunni Muslim extremists by Osama bin Laden.

Al-Baghdadi, a cutthroat and unconditionally feared leader, has had a $10 million State Department bounty on his head since 2011. But he remained largely out of the global spotlight until very recently.

Al-Baghdadi was born in 1971 in the city of Samarra, roughly 50 miles north of Baghdad. He reportedly holds a doctorate degree in Islamic studies from Iraq’s University of Islamic Sciences and was briefly detained by U.S. forces occupying Iraq during the mid-2000s.

He emerged in Mosul five days after ISIL declared the establishment of a caliphate and proclaimed al-Baghdadi as its leader, or caliph, demanding that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.

According to a report by The Guardian newspaper, those at the Grand Mosque in Mosul on Friday had no idea who would be preaching. But as the bearded figure made his entrance, he was introduced to them simply as “your new caliph Ibrahim.”

In the video circulated over the weekend, al-Baghdadi appeared in black robes and a black turban. He urged his followers to jihad and a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

According to The Associated Press, al-Baghdadi spoke in classical Arabic with little emotion but struck a humble tone, telling listeners: “I am not better than you or more virtuous than you. If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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