Two Iraqi officials and state TV said Sunday that an airstrike wounded Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after a Twitter account linked to the terror group appeared to confirm he had been hit.
An Interior Ministry intelligence representative told The Associated Press on Sunday that the strike took place early Saturday in the town of al-Qa’im in Iraq’s Anbar province.
The official, citing informants within the militant group, said the strikes wounded al-Baghdadi. In addition, a senior Iraqi military officer said he learned in operational meetings that al-Baghdadi had been wounded.
Neither of the officials knew the extent of al-Baghdadi’s apparent injuries. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential material. State television later also reported that al-Baghdadi had been wounded.
Earlier Sunday, a Twitter account associated with the Islamic State wished Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a “speedy recovery” in a tweet posted Sunday, a day after reports emerged that the shadowy leader may have been injured.
“And do you think that the Caliphate ends when the caliph dies?/ We would like to reassure the nation that its prince is well thanks to Allah/ We pray for his speedy recovery #prayer,” the tweet read in Arabic.
The Twitter account belongs to an alleged spokesperson for the Islamic State.
Al-Baghdadi is thought to control the Islamic State terror group, a former al-Qaeda offshoot that captured wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria over the last year and declared itself a caliphate, ruled by Baghdadi as a supreme religious and political leader.
A series of airstrikes targeted a gathering of IS leaders near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul late on Friday, the Pentagon said, and Iraqi authorities were seeking to determine if the group’s chief had been killed.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official earlier said there was no “accurate information” on whether Baghdadi was dead but that authorities were investigating. “The information is from unofficial sources and was not confirmed until now, and we are working on that,” he announced.
The death of the elusive IS leader would be a major victory for the US-led coalition, but officials said it could take time to confirm who had been hit in the strikes.
“I can’t absolutely confirm that Baghdadi has been killed,” General Nicholas Houghton, the chief of staff of the British armed forces, told BBC television on Sunday. “Probably, it will take some days to have absolute confirmation,” he added.
A spokesman for US Central Command — which oversees American forces in the Middle East — could not confirm either if Baghdadi was present at the time of the raid, which, he stated, had intentionally targeted the group’s leadership.
The strikes were a further sign of “the pressure we continue to place on the (IS) terrorist network,” spokesman Patrick Ryder said.
The aim was to squeeze the group and ensure it had “increasingly limited freedom to maneuver, communicate and command.”
The US-led coalition against the Islamic State, which is made up of more than 30 countries from four continents, has been attacking Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria since August.
US President Barack Obama said Sunday that deploying additional troops to Iraq signals a “new phase” in the fight against the Islamic State group.
After earlier unveiling plans to send up to 1,500 more US troops to Iraq to advise and train the country’s forces, Obama told CBS News on Sunday that the US-led effort to defeat IS was moving to a new stage.
“Phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible — and we now have done that,” Obama told CBS News on Sunday.
“Rather than just try to halt (IS’s) momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense,” the president added, stressing the need for Iraqi ground troops to start pushing back IS fighters.
“We will provide them close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offense (against IS),” Obama said. “But what we will not be doing is having our troops do the fighting.”
Going on the offensive will be a significant challenge for Iraq’s forces, which saw multiple divisions fall apart in the early days of the jihadist offensive, leaving major units that need to be reconstituted.
The additional troops announced by Obama would roughly double the number of American military personnel in the country to about 3,100, marking a significant return of US forces to Iraq by a president who has hailed his role in their 2011 departure.