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Published: Tuesday January 21, 2014 MYT 2:15:02 AM
Updated: Tuesday January 21, 2014 MYT 2:16:00 AM

Al Qaeda offshoot imposes strict Islamic rules in north Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A group linked to al Qaeda, emboldened by its recent victory over rival rebels in Syria, has imposed sweeping restrictions on personal freedoms in the northern province of Raqqa as it seeks to consolidate control over the region.

Reuters obtained copies of four statements issued on Sunday by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) prohibiting music from being played in public and photographs of people being posted in shop windows.

The sale of cigarettes and shisha water pipes are banned, women must wear the niqab, or full face veil, in public and men are obliged to attend Friday prayers at a mosque.

The directives, which cite Koranic verses and Islamic teaching, are the latest evidence of ISIL's ambition to establish a Syrian state founded on radical Islamist principles.

ISIL is widely considered the most radical of the rebel groups fighting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and increasingly each other, in Syria's civil war.

The first and only city to have fallen completely under rebel control, Raqqa has been held up by many ordinary Syrians as an example of what Syria might look like in a post-Assad era.

The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group with sources across the country, said ISIL was turning its attention to setting up such a state after repelling an offensive earlier this month by rival Islamists and more moderate rebels.

The Observatory said ISIL was posting the statements at mosques and other public places on Monday. The statements gave residents three days to start complying or face unspecified punishments "in accordance with sharia", or Islamic law.

REBEL INFIGHTING

The expansion of ISIL last year alarmed Western nations and helped Assad portray himself as the only secular alternative to Islamist extremism.

"ISIL was strong before in Raqqa, but now it's the only force there," said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Observatory.

Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, two Islamist rebel factions fighting to bring down Assad's government, tried to prevent the sale of tobacco when they ruled the city briefly last year.

But ISIL emerged as the dominant player and outraged residents by carrying out executions in a public square, patrolling the streets in black masks and turning government buildings into headquarters and prisons.

The group's statements - its most extensive yet - were unlikely to face opposition given last week's expulsion of Ahrar, Nusra and other rebel factions.

ISIL had pulled out of Raqqa and other towns in northern Syria earlier this month after an Islamist rebel alliance attacked its strongholds, taking advantage of popular resentment of the group's foreign commanders, its killing of other rebels and the drive to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

But ISIL regrouped, using snipers, truck-mounted commando units and suicide bombers to retake much of the lost territory.

Fighting among rebels has killed hundreds of people in the last three weeks and challenged ISIL's grip over large swathes of northern Syria.

Rival rebel factions continue to clash over territory in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, where ISIL has been weakened in the past three weeks.

The Daoud Brigade, a rebel faction composed mainly of Syrians which has pledged loyalty to ISIL, issued a statement on Monday calling for an end to fighting among rivals.

The group said it had reached a "partial solution to end the bloodshed in the eastern suburbs of Idlib" through a ceasefire with other rebels and a renewed focus on fighting the government.

The statement said the Daoud Brigade sought to expand the ceasefire to the rest of Syria, but the impact of the call was not immediately clear.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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