- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The top U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria refused to confirm recent reports that Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by coalition forces Tuesday, contrary to allegations of the terror group leader by the the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

American or coalition intelligence reports could “neither confirm nor deny if [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,” he said.

Members of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed they had irrefutable evidence the leader of the terror group known as ISIS or ISIL had been killed in counterterrorism operations in the Deir-e-Zour area in eastern Syria.

“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 AFP.

Top ISIS leaders, including Baghdadi, reportedly began fleeing Raqqa for Deir-e-zour and Madan en masse in May, ahead of the coalition’s operation to liberate the Syrian city of Raqqa, which had been the group’s self-styled capital in the country since taking the city three years ago.

Deir-e-zour and the surrounding river valley is 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 or SDF, 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.

Russian news outlets, citing defense officials in Moscow, had reported 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 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.

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