As the urban combat continues in Mosul, a senior Iraqi military leader says it’s hoped that the self-styled Islamic State will be ousted from the west of the city within a month.
As coalition forces advance deeper, militants are putting up stiff resistance, using suicide car bombs and snipers to defend their last major stronghold in the country.
The operation to retake the east of the city, launched in October with US backing, took more than three months. The offensive to recapture the west began less than three weeks ago.
“Despite the tough fighting… we are moving ahead in persistence to finish the battle for the western side within a month,” Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, head of the elite Counter Terrorism Service, told Reuters on Thursday.
Where is al-Baghdadi?
A major question is: what has happened to ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
US and Iraqi intelligence sources reportedly believe he has abandoned the city.
Although videos released by the extremists attempt to portray diehard followers fighting to the last, there has been a sharp drop in ISIL postings on social media. It’s seen as a sign that Baghdadi and his entourage have become increasingly isolated.
It has been impossible to confirm the whereabouts of the man who proclaimed an Islamic “caliphate” and declared himself ruler of all Muslims from Mosul’s Great Mosque after his forces swept through northern Iraq in 2014.
Baghdadi has not released a recorded speech for four months, shortly after the start of the offensive to retake Mosul.
He is thought to be hiding in the desert, perhaps moving location regularly. Security sources believe he is hiding among sympathetic civilians in desert villages, rather than with fighters in urban areas where combat has been underway.
It is thought that he learned from the killing of previous Islamist leaders, relying on multiple couriers and switching cars during trips. The US government has had a joint task force to track hims down, including special operations forces, the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
According to Hisham al-Hashami, the author of the book “World of Daesh”, who also advises the Iraqi government, Baghdadi is moving in a remote, mostly desert stretch populated exclusively by Sunni Arab tribes north of the Euphrates river.
US defence official says Islamic State leader fled city before Iraqi forces cut route to Tal Afarhttps://t.co/a2NC6StOS6— Aüd™ (@CodeAud) March 9, 2017
‘The game is up’
Hashimi estimates that more than half of the 6,000 ISIL militants left to defend Mosul have been killed. US commanders say the battle for the city is now in a late stage.
“The game is up,” US Air Force Brigadier General Matthew Isler told Reuters, adding that some of ISIL’s foreign fighters are trying to leave the city. He believes that those left behind are mostly Iraqis, fighting hard but no longer part of an integrated force.
They are overwhelmingly outnumbered by a 100,000-strong array of Iraqi forces who are expected to prevail.
In the meantime civilians are fleeing Mosul in greater numbers as the fighting approaches the densely populated old city. It has prompted alarm that the camps for displaced people are nearly full.
The United Nations estimates that some 40,000 people have fled the fighting over the past 10 days, bringing the total number of displaced to more than 200,000 since the offensive began.
Islamic State leader Baghdadi abandons the Mosul fight to his field commanders, say U.S. and Iraqi sources. https://t.co/4kgTieG9yS pic.twitter.com/29qgbjZpGO— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) March 8, 2017