by Liz Fields, Vice News
The fate of the Islamic State’s top commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains murky in the aftermath of coalition airstrikes that reportedly targeted a house in Iraq where top militants were meeting Saturday, according to witnesses and local media.
Dozens were wounded and killed in an attack that reportedly hit a gathering of Islamic State leaders near the western Iraqi town of Quaim, local residents told Reuters. Unconfirmed reports have stated that the reclusive al-Baghdadi was among those injured or possibly killed.
Following the assault, witnesses told Al Arabiya News that Islamic State fighters cleared a hospital in the town southwest of Mosul and brought their wounded there, using loudspeakers to encourage locals to donate blood to the fallen.
US Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US troops in the Middle East, said that coalition warplanes conducted a “series of air strikes” against “a gathering of (IS) leaders near Mosul,” but did not confirm whether al-Baghdadi was there, AFP reported.
“This strike demonstrates the pressure we continue to place on the ISIL [IS] terrorist network and the group’s increasingly limited freedom to maneuver, communicate and command,” Centcom spokesman Patrick Ryder said Saturday.
Conflicting reports on the possible death or wounding of al-Baghdadi, who rarely appears in public and has been reported killed on numerous previous occasions, continued to circulate over the weekend.
Tribal sources told Al Arabiya News that al-Baghdadi was “critically wounded” in the strikes. Other senior Islamic State members believed to be among the dead or injured include the group’s leader of Iraq’s Anbar Province and his deputy, local residents told Reuters.
The Islamic State did not immediately issue any statements, but a Twitter account associated with the group stated that their leader was “alive and well.”
— State of Islam (@Dawla_accountt) November 8, 2014
“Until now, there is no accurate information available,” a senior Iraqi intelligence official told AFP when asked whether Baghdadi had been killed.
“The information is from unofficial sources and was not confirmed until now, and we are working on that,” the official said without specifying what the initial reports indicated.
Al-Baghdadi’s death would be a major victory for the US and coalition forces fighting against the Islamist insurgency in Iraq and Syria. Washington has put a $10 million bounty on the leader’s head.
The airstrikes came a day after President Barack Obama announced the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq, and the same weekend that a spate of deadly car bombings and a suicide truck attack killed at least 58 people and injured dozens more in cities across the country.