Rumors that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in an airstrike circulated on Iraqi social media Sunday, along with a photograph purportedly showing the bloodied jihadi leader.
The speculation was backed by several unconfirmed Iraqi media reports, which maintained that Baghdadi was slain in a US airstrike several days ago. However, later Iraqi reports said the IS leader was severely wounded in the chest near the Syrian border and was receiving medical treatment.
The reports could not be independently confirmed.
Washington expanded its month-long air campaign to Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland, hitting Islamic State fighters west of Baghdad as troops and allied tribesmen launched a ground assault on Sunday.
The new strikes deepen Washington’s involvement in the conflict and were a significant escalation for President Barack Obama, who made his political career opposing the war in Iraq and pulled out US troops in 2011.
Previous strikes — since the US air campaign began on August 8 — had been mainly in support of Kurdish forces in the north.
US warplanes bombed IS fighters around a strategic dam on the Euphrates River in an area that the jihadists have repeatedly tried to capture from government troops and their Sunni militia allies.
“We conducted these strikes to prevent terrorists from further threatening the security of the dam, which remains under control of Iraqi security forces, with support from Sunni tribes,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
“The potential loss of control of the dam, or a catastrophic failure of the dam — and the flooding that might result — would have threatened US personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens,” he added.
AFP contributed to this report.