Isil leader al-Baghdadi has 'given up on Mosul and fled into desert'
US and Iraqi officials believe the leader of Isil, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has left operational commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battle of Mosul, and is now hiding out in the desert, focussing mainly on his own survival.
It is impossible to confirm the whereabouts of the Isil "caliph", who declared himself the ruler of all Muslims from Mosul's Great Mosque after his forces swept through northern Iraq in 2014. But US and Iraqi intelligence sources say an absence of official communication from the group's leadership and the loss of territory in Mosul suggest he has abandoned the city, by far the largest population centre his group has ever held.
He has proved to be an elusive target, rarely using communication that can be monitored, and moving constantly, often multiple times in one 24-hour cycle, the sources say.
From their efforts to track him, they believe he hides mostly among sympathetic civilians in familiar desert villages, rather than with fighters in their barracks in urban areas where combat has been under way.
US-backed Iraqi forces began an operation five months ago to recapture Mosul, a city at least four times the size of any other the group has held. The biggest battle in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003, it has been slow going, in part because hundreds of thousands of civilians remain in harm's way. The 100,000-strong Iraqi force fully captured the eastern half of Mosul in January, and commanders began an operation to cross the Tigris and take the western half last month.
Baghdadi himself has not released a recorded speech since early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he called on his followers to fight the "unbelievers" and "make their blood flow as rivers".
The last official report about Baghdadi was from the Iraqi military on February 13. Iraqi F-16s carried out a strike on a house where he was thought to be meeting other commanders, in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, it said.