- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pentagon officials were downplaying the most authoritative claims to date that the Islamic State founder has been killed, with the top commander in Iraq and Syria refusing to confirm reports of “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death.

If al-Baghdadi is dead, it would be the latest blow to Islamic State as its forces are being driven out of Mosul, Iraq, and face a growing offensive on their de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. The U.S. government had offered a $25 million reward for his capture — the same bounty offered for al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden.

American or coalition intelligence reports could “neither confirm nor deny if [al-Baghdadi] is alive or dead,” Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon during a briefing from Baghdad. “It is my foremost hope it is the latter.”

Officials at the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a strong track record for accuracy in the chaotic Syrian struggle, claimed they had irrefutable evidence al-Baghdadi had been killed in counterterrorism operations in the Deir Ezzor area in eastern Syria, which is shaping up as the final territorial refuge for ISIS as Russian, Syria, Iranian and U.S. backed coalition forces all advance.

“Top-tier commanders from IS who are present in Deir Ezzor province have confirmed the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, emir of the Islamic State group, to the Observatory,” the group’s Director Rami Abdel Rahman, told the Agence France-Presse news service.

Top ISIS leaders, including al-Baghdadi, reportedly began fleeing Raqqa en masse for Deir-e-zour and Madan in May, ahead of the coalition’s operation to liberate Raqqa, which ISIS took over three years ago.

Al-Baghdadi, 45, has been a reclusive figure since his last public appearance, a sermon at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul in 2014 proclaiming the founding of Islamic State. The mosque’s famous minaret was recently razed by Islamic State fighters engaged in a bitter-end fight in the Iraqi city.

Al-Baghdadi has also gone silent since released a recorded audio message in November 2016, urging his fighters to resist U.S.-backed Iraqi forces as the battle to retake Mosul was just beginning.

Deir-ez-Zor and the surrounding river valley are expected to be the new battleground for the fight against ISIS once Raqqa falls. The Raqqa offensive, which began last month, will likely will be one of the most brutal fights the U.S.-backed coalition has faced since the war began in earnest in 2014, Gen. Townsend said.

“There’s no negotiation. If you want to surrender, then come out with your hands up,” he said of the tactics employed by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the network of American-backed Arab and Kurdish militias in the fight for Raqqa against ISIS. “Their options are to surrender or be killed,” he added.

Islamic State suffered another battlefield reverse Tuesday when a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led militia drove ISIS militants from a northern Syrian town where the extremists had once run a training camp named for bin Laden, The Associated Press reported.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have been advancing against ISIS on both sides of the Euphrates River Valley in Syria while battling the group for control of Raqqa with U.S. air and ground support.

The SDF captured al-Ukayrshi, 9 miles southeast of Raqqa and once home to a sprawling jihadi military installation, spokesman Mustafa Bali told the AP.

The IS-run Aamaq news agency reported only that the militants had blown up a car bomb in the town Monday, killing 11 Kurdish fighters.

Russian news outlets, citing defense officials in Moscow, had reported al-Baghdadi’s demise months earlier, saying the ISIS chieftain had been killed during Russian airstrikes on the terror group’s positions outside Raqqa in May. While Gen. Townsend could not confirm al-Baghdadi’s current status or whereabouts, the four-star general said U.S. intelligence had ruled out the terror leader’s death in May.

“I’ve received some reporting since then that suggested he was not killed there by the Russians,” he said. “Since then, we’ve heard all kinds of reporting that he’s alive, that he’s dead. Quite honestly, don’t know. I hope he’s deader than a door nail. If he’s not, as soon as we find out where he is, he will be,” Gen. Townsend added.

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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