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Islamic State militant leader makes apparent rare appearance in Iraq

July 5, 2014 at 7:12 PM EDT
A 21-minute video said to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State group, was reportedly filmed on Friday in Mosul. The identity of al-Baghdadi could not be independently confirmed by news organizations. Saad Maan of the Iraqi Interior Ministry has told Reuters the Iraqi government believes the video to be fake. Matt Bradley of the Wall Street Journal joins John Larson via Skype from Baghdad to share why this rare appearance, if confirmed, is so significant.

JOHN LARSON: From Iraq tonight, word of the first public appearance by the man behind the recent offensive by Islamic extremists who have captured towns in northern Iraq and western Iraq and declared a caliphate, or Islamic state.

For more about that and the counteroffensive by Iraqi government forces, we’re joined now via Skype from Baghdad by Matthew Bradley of The Wall Street Journal. Matt, thanks for joining us. What’s the latest at this hour?

MATT BRADLEY: The latest news that’s come out in the last couple of hours is the appearance of the Islamic state’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who made his first video appearance just today and just in the last couple of hours. And this was a video that was circulated on social media and supposedly shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving a sort of a sermon to a prayer group, to a meeting of Muslims in a mosque in Mosul, the northern city of Iraq yesterday.

So this is a very big deal because Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—there’s only two known photos of him available. He’s very—notoriously elusive character, and now we’re seeing a lengthy video sequence of him for the first time. And it’s a very, very interesting development. We’re now actually able to put a face to a name of jihadi leader who has really eclipsed al-Qaida, and Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of al-Qaida, in the last couple of months in terms of power and in terms of popularity.

JOHN LARSON: You know, you’re in Baghdad. What’s the mood on the streets right now in Baghdad? How close are sort of these forces to Baghdad right now?

MATT BRADLEY: These forces are forming something of a u-shape, a sort of horseshoe around Baghdad. They’re quite close, maybe about 100 miles to the north in the city of Tikrit. They’re in the west, the closest city being Fallujah, which they’ve held since January. And they’re quite close to Baghdad in the south, and there’s been clashes there in the town of Abu Ghraib. If you remember Abu Ghraib as the site of that huge penitentiary where the U.S. forces were seen torturing prisoners and harassing prisoners. That prison has been evacuated a couple of months ago just because how close the militants were coming.

So they are really pretty close to the city. The thing is, is that Baghdad is not like the other areas of Iraq that the Islamic State, which is formerly known as ISIS, was able to take because Baghdad is quite a large Shiite population. And it’s not really possible for this militia to move in quite as easily into Baghdad as they did into Mosul and some of the cities to the north.

JOHN LARSON: Matt, we understand there have been some successes by government forces. What’s the reality at least the way it feels there in the streets? You know, will government forces be able to move into any of these major metropolitan areas that they’ve lost?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, it doesn’t look good. The military has been trying to take Tikrit, which is the city that’s near the birth town/home of Saddam Hussein. And they’ve been doing that for about a week. They’ve been trying to push into this city. There’s been landmines that have really been frustrating their approach. So it doesn’t look good for the Iraqi military. They don’t seem to be able to take the upper hand against a militant group that should be much less prepared, much worse trained, and much worse armed than this U.S-trained and U.S-armed military.

JOHN LARSON: Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much for joining us.

MATT BRADLEY: Thank you.