SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) He’s enemy No. 1 in the fight against ISIS. But after waves of airstrikes by both Iraq and U.S.-led coalition forces, questions abound over whether the terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was hit.
Iraq’s minister of defense, Khaled al-Obeidi, said on Facebook that al-Baghdadi was wounded in airstrikes in Mosul on Friday night and that his deputy, Musallam al-Turkmani, was killed.
But Iraq’s Interior Ministry said the Iraqi air force wounded al-Baghdadi in an airstrike Saturday not in Mosul, but in the Iraqi town of al-Qaim — about 400 kilometers (250 miles) away.
A spokesman for Iraq’s Prime Minister told CNN that his office is still waiting to hear from coalition forces and can’t confirm anything at this point.
Iraqi forces did conduct an airstrike Saturday at al-Qaim based on intelligence they had that al-Baghdadi was there at the time, a senior U.S. official told CNN.
That strike was solely conducted by Iraqi forces specifically targeting al-Baghdadi, the official said. But the United States is still not certain al-Baghdadi was there.
CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank says there is significant skepticism among analysts tracking ISIS about the Iraqi government claims.
“Different parts of the Iraqi government are saying al-Baghdadi was hit by different strikes on different days in completely different parts of the country,” Cruickshank said.
The Pentagon confirmed U.S.-led coalition airstrikes over the weekend that targeted “what was assessed to be a gathering of ISIL leaders” near Mosul. ISIL is another acronym for ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State.
But Col. Patrick Ryan said he could not confirm reports that al-Baghdadi was in the convoy.
The strike was conducted because 10 vehicles believed to be carrying ISIS leadership presented themselves as a target, the senior U.S. official said.
Adding to the mystery about al-Baghdadi’s condition is a tweet from an account purportedly associated with ISIS supporters.
“We assure the nation that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is in good condition. Pray for his speedy recovery,” the tweet said. But official ISIS accounts are difficult to confirm as they get suspended frequently by Twitter.
Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Partners, a U.S. outfit tracking jihadist websites, told CNN he believes the tweet is a fake.
Iran’s claim on Baghdad
Despite months of ISIS’ advances in Iraq, the militant group has yet to rain its terror on Baghdad. And according to an Iranian military official, the world can thank Iran for that.
“The (ISIS) terrorists sought to surround Baghdad, but they failed in reaching their ominous goals thanks to Iran’s supports,” Brig. Gen. Esmayeel Qa’ani said Sunday, according to Iran’s FARS news agency.
Qa’ani is lieutenant commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
According to FARS, senior military officials in Baghdad said the Quds Force helped free the Iraqi town of Jurf al-Sakher from ISIS control.
A common enemy
ISIS is one of few issues that Iran and the United States agree on; both countries want to quash the terror group that has been taking over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
But with no diplomatic relations with Iran and lingering concerns over its nuclear program, the United States has had to walk a tightrope over Iran’s involvement.
This was reflected in comments U.S. President Barack Obama made to CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“There is some deconflicting, in the sense that since they have some troops or militias they control in and around Baghdad … we let them know, ‘Don’t mess with us. We’re not here to mess with you.’ We’re focused on our common enemy,” Obama said.
More U.S. troops
The decision to increase U.S. troop deployments to Iraq isn’t a sign the U.S. strategy against ISIS is failing, but rather a signal the campaign is entering a new phase, Obama said.
The additional 1,500 troops are being sent to help train Iraqi army soldiers and militia fighters to battle ISIS on the ground after weeks of U.S. and allied airstrikes.
“The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making,” Obama said. “Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.”
Obama reiterated that U.S. forces will not go into combat. But he said the United States will provide local troops with “close air support” once they are ready to go on the offensive against ISIS.