BEIRUT (Reuters) - Some Islamist groups fighting in Syria have rejected the announcement of an Islamic caliphate by an increasingly powerful rival.
Nine groups, including fighters and religious scholars, have dismissed the statement by Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot which declared its leader ruler of the Muslim world on Sunday after military gains in neighboring Iraq.
The group, formerly called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, has seized parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq but is still battling rival Islamist fighters in Syria.
“The terms of the caliphate have not been realized at present, especially in terms of state organizations,” the statement by the nine groups said, calling on Muslims to avoid siding with Islamic State.
They also said the announcement would be used as pretext by foreign powers who want to tilt the balance against rebels seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and would improve his image in the West as a legitimate leader.
The June 30 statement, which Syrian activists said appeared genuine, was signed by groups including Islamic Front, an Islamist coalition which includes Saudi-backed combatants, and by the top body of Syrian Islamic scholars in exile.
Al Qaeda’s official Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, one of Islamic State’s main rivals in the country, has yet to comment.
Infighting between anti-Assad armed groups has killed around 7,000 people so far this year according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Islamic State, which derives much of its strength from foreign fighters, has seized swathes of territory in Iraq including the city of Mosul and has advanced towards Baghdad.
In Syria it is fighting with Islamist rivals in the province of Deir al-Zor, bordering Iraq. The Observatory said on Tuesday that Islamic State was in control of most of Albu Kamal, a border town where rivals have fought back in recent days.
Islamic State is a radical al Qaeda splinter group that has roots in Iraq and expanded into Syria shortly after the start of the uprising against Assad three years ago.
It controls large parts of Syria’s eastern oil-producing Euphrates River region, and its gains in Iraq since June 10 mean it has command of a cross-border expanse of territory.
By claiming leadership across the Muslim world - in a direct challenge to al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri - Islamic State could deepen divisions and rivalry among al Qaeda offshoots.
“This announcement will only deepen the conflict with the central al Qaeda organization over the legitimacy of who represents it now and as a result who represents true Islam,” said Jordan-based Hassan Abu Haniyah, an expert on jihadist Islamic groups.
Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy