Iraq probes claim Isil leader was killed in US air strikes
Authorities in Iraq were last night investigating claims that the Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been "critically injured" in US-led air strikes, prompting speculation of his death.
The death of the elusive leader would mark a significant change in the US-led effort to curtail the Islamist extremist group. Yesterday, Britain's chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, warned, however, that the Isil leadership would regenerate even if the Baghdadi had been killed.
General Houghton told the BBC: "I can't absolutely confirm that Baghdadi has died. Even the Americans themselves are not yet in a position to do that.
"Probably it will take some days to have absolute confirmation."
Friday's strikes destroyed an Isil convoy near the Iraqi city of Mosul, but US officials said it was unclear whether the group's top commander had been in any of the 10 targeted vehicles.
Tribal sources told the Saudi news channel Al Arabiya that after the strike Isil members scrambled to transport the wounded to al-Qaim Hospital, which was overwhelmed with the injured.
Meanwhile, Iraqi military forces reached the centre of the northern city of Baiji yesterday, trying to break the Isil siege of the country's biggest refinery, outside the city. This led to fierce fighting. Sunni insurgents had seized Baiji in June, during a lightning advance through northern Iraq. Since then, they surrounded the refinery and halted its production, while a detachment of government troops inside has held out for months under siege.
An Iraqi colonel said troops had entered Baiji, a city of about 200,000 people, from the south and west and took over the al-Tamim neighbourhood and city centre.
Isil had placed bombs along the roads and deployed snipers to keep the government forces from advancing - tactics used in other cities held by the ultra-hardline Sunni group, which controls swathes of both Iraq and Syria.
"There are IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and snipers that are slowing down the advance, but the presence of the air force has facilitated the process of dismantling the IEDs in order to push forward," said the colonel.
"The areas taken so far are 6km away from Baiji's refinery," he added.
Baiji resident Sultan al-Janabi said clashes had been raging since the advance, the first time security forces reached the city centre since launching a new encirclement strategy at the end of last month.
"Violent confrontations are taking place in Baiji right now. I've been hearing continuous fire and loud bangs," said Mr Janabi from his house in the air.
On Friday night, a suicide bomber rammed a truck packed with explosives into a Humvee transporting senior police commander General Faisal Malik, one of the supervisors of the campaign against Islamic State militants surrounding the refinery. The general and two policemen were killed.
The truck used in the attack was armoured, suggesting Islamic State had seized it from defeated Iraqi troops. (© Daily Telegraph, London)