BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Dozens of al Qaeda-linked gunmen took to the streets of Ramadi on Wednesday in a show of force to announce the city was joining an Islamic state comprising Iraq’s mostly Sunni Arab provinces, Islamists and witnesses said.
Witnesses in Ramadi, the capital of western Anbar province, said gunmen dressed in white marched through the city as mosque loudspeakers broadcast the statement by the Mujahideen Shura Council, a Sunni militant group led by al Qaeda in Iraq.
“We are from Mujahideen Shura Council and our Amir (Prince) is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. God willing we will set the law of Sharia here and we will fight the Americans,” said a man who identified himself as Abu Harith, a Mujahideen field leader.
“We have announced the Islamic state. Ramadi is part of it. Our state will comprise all the Sunni provinces of Iraq,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The group often claims responsibility for attacks against U.S.-led forces and the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
Last week the Mujahideen Council announced the formation of the Mutayibeen Coalition to step up the fight against U.S.-led forces and urged Sunni Muslim tribal leaders to join.
The coalition called for a separate Islamic state “to protect our religion and our people, to prevent strife and so that the blood and sacrifices of your martyrs are not lost”.
Abu Harith said the state would be headed by Amir Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a little-known militant. It would include Sunni areas of Baghdad, and the provinces of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salaheddin, Nineveh and parts of Babil and Wasit. Iraq has 18 provinces.
The U.S. military said it was unaware of any marches by gunmen in Ramadi.
Wednesday’s announcement could create tension among Sunni Arabs and could bring further conflict over who will control the Sunni Arab heartland.
In Anbar, which makes up a third of Iraq’s territory and is the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency, some Sunni tribal leaders have vowed to take on al Qaeda, which they accuse of imposing a harsh interpretation of Sunni Islam.
Al Qaeda in Iraq opposes the U.S.-backed political process and calls Sunni officials taking part in parliament and government traitors.
Another fighter who did not give his name said Ramadi was just the beginning and the rest of the provinces would follow.
He said the Sunni Islamic state was a response to a decision last week by Iraq’s Shi’ite-controlled parliament to pass a law that allows provinces to form federal regions. He said the law weakened the Sunnis.
Some Shi’ite leaders want to create a region in the oil-rich Shi’ite heartland in the south. Sunni Arab political parties oppose federalism, saying it will lead to Iraq’s break-up.
“We need to secure the rights of the Sunnis based on God’s sharia,” he said, “Who will dare to oppose God’s sharia?”
Abu Harith said Sunni Arabs were being marginalized.
“We are all Iraqis and we will fight for the rights of the Sunnis. We want to bring justice back to its people.”