Iraq faces pockets of DAESH resistance
WASHINGTON, July 15, (AFP): Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said Friday he cannot confirm whether or not Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, after reports from Syria that the jihadist leader had been killed. “If we knew, we would tell you — right now, I can’t confirm or deny it,” Mattis said. “Our approach is we assume he’s alive until it’s proven otherwise, and right now I can’t prove it otherwise.” The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a longtime conflict monitor, said earlier this week it had heard from senior IS leaders in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province that Baghdadi was dead. There was no official confirmation or denial of the news on IS-run social media outlets. “We’ll go after him until he’s gone,” Mattis said. There have been persistent rumors that Baghdadi has died in recent months. Russia’s army said in mid-June that it was seeking to verify whether it had killed the IS chief in a May air strike in Syria. With a $25 million US bounty on his head, Baghdadi has kept a low profile but was rumored to move regularly throughout IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria.
The 46-year-old Iraqi has not been seen since making his only known public appearance as “caliph” in 2014 at the Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul, which was destroyed in the battle for Iraq’s second city. Saudi Arabia on Friday hailed the Iraq government’s recapture of Mosul city from Islamic State group jihadists, stressing its solidarity with Baghdad in combating “terrorism” despite their rocky relations. The kingdom “congratulates the Iraqi government and people for recapturing Mosul city and liberating it from the DAESH terrorist organisation,” the foreign ministry said in a statement, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
The statement carried by SPA state news agency stressed that Riyadh “stands by Iraq and its efforts to combat extremism and terrorism in all its form, as well as its financing”. Iraq declared victory in Mosul this week after a nearly nine-month battle that ravaged the city and took a heavy toll on residents and security forces. Riyadh and Baghdad have made efforts to improve their bumpy relations, with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, a Shiite, visiting the predominantly Sunni kingdom last month. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir travelled to Baghdad in February for talks with Abadi, on the first visit of its kind since 2003. Saudi Arabia has long expressed concern about Shiite Iran’s “interference” in the region, including through Iraq’s paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi which has played a major role in fighting IS. Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran in early 2016 after years of strained relations. Although Saudi Arabia officially supports the fight against the Sunni jihadists of IS, Iraq and some other countries have argued it needs to do more to help defeat the extremists and their ideology. Iraqi forces hit further pockets of resistance from Islamic State militants in Mosul’s Old City on Friday, four days after the prime minister declared victory. Army helicopters flew overhead and explosions could be heard, residents said.
“Three mortars landed on our district,” a resident of Faysaliya, just across the Tigris river in east Mosul, said by telephone. The US-led coalition backing the Iraqi military campaign said it had conducted two air strikes in the Mosul area a day earlier, destroying 22 fighting positions and a tunnel. The victory of US-backed Iraqi forces in Mosul marked the biggest defeat for Islamic State, which is also under siege in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, its operational base.
A few hundred Islamic State insurgents swept into Mosul three years ago as the Iraqi army collapsed, imposing a reign of terror and declaring a caliphate in territory it had seized spanning swathes of Iraq and Syria. The group still controls areas south and west of Mosul inhabited by tens of thousands of people.
The top US general in Iraq said this week that security forces would rest and re-equip before moving on to Tal Afar, 65 kms (40 miles) west of Mosul. The United Nations on Friday estimated that than 20,000 people remained in the city, whose pre-war population were mostly Shiite and Sunni Turkmen. Iraqi forces have regained control of more than half of Imam Gharbi, a village south of Mosul that Islamic State militants armed with machine guns and mortars stormed last week, a security source said. A few dozen insurgents are estimated to remain in the area. Securing long-term peace in Iraq will not be easy. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faces the challenge of preventing revenge killings that could create more instability, as well as stemming the sectarian tensions and ethnic strife that have dogged Iraq since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.