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The Islamic State is a direct descendant of al-Qaeda, but there is one key difference: Its leaders believe fighting "apostates" is more important than fighting non-Muslims for now. They want to unite the Middle East under their banner before truly turning their sights on the US and Europe. Their caliphate, say its fighters, will never be truly powerful unless apostates and "fake" Muslims are first weeded out - and their definition of "apostate" expands to include anyone who stands against them.
Al-Qaeda has always seen this as a bad strategy, as it risks alienating Muslims worldwide. But the astonishing growth of the Islamic State, despite their enthusiasm for killing Shia Muslims and other so-called "apostates" - such as the Yazidis - has turned that thinking on its head. In fact the Islamic State declaration has split the jihadi world, with many angry at the upstarts for being so daring while others enthusiastically pledging support. Al-Qaeda itself has been criticised by affiliates in Syria for not condemning Islamic State, most likely because its worried such a move would lose it support.
BAGHDAD — A group of Iraqi Sunni refugees had found shelter in an abandoned school, two families to a room, after fleeing fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. They were gathered in the school’s courtyard last week when the Iraqi Air Force bombed them.
The bombing, in Alam District near Tikrit, may well have been a mistake. But some of the survivors believe adamantly that the pilot had to know he was bombing civilians, landing the airstrike “in the middle of all the people,” said Nimr Ghalib, whose wife, three children, sister and nephew were among at least 38 people killed, according to witnesses interviewed last week, as well as human rights workers who detailed the attack on Wednesday.
The attack fit a pattern of often indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes on Sunni areas by the armed forces of the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The strikes have added to a long and bitter list of Sunni grievances, leading many to view the government’s leaders as an enemy — and some to regard the government as an even greater threat than the Sunni extremists in ISIS.
Overcoming that mistrust is a fundamental challenge facing the new Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, as it tries to win Sunni Iraqis over to its side in a fight against the Sunni extremists.
As ISIS seized vast sections of territory this summer, as Iraqi soldiers fled or were routed, the government increasingly turned to Shiite militias to counter the threat.
Iraq’s Sunnis vividly recall how militias linked to the governing Shiite parties staged attacks against Sunnis during the worst years of the sectarian conflict last decade, often in cooperation with Iraq’s military and police forces, or while wearing their uniforms.
Mr. Maliki was criticized for his inability or unwillingness to dismantle the groups, hardening Sunni mistrust of the government.