WASHINGTON (AP) — Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears to be still alive, a top U.S. military commander said Thursday, contradicting Russia’s claims that it probably killed the top counterterror target months ago.
“Do I believe he’s alive? Yes,” said Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition forces fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, referring to al-Baghdadi.
At first, Townsend said his belief stemmed from a lack of evidence he had seen — “rumor or otherwise” — that al-Baghdadi was dead. But, he then added: “There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s alive.” Townsend did not elaborate on the intelligence.
Russian officials said in June there was a “high probability” that al-Baghdadi died in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, a month earlier.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters in Baghdad, Townsend said U.S. and coalition forces are actively searching for al-Baghdadi. If they find him, they probably will kill him rather than capture him, he said.
A good guess about where al-Baghdadi is hiding, Townsend said, would be the so-called Middle Euphrates River Valley, stretching approximately from the city of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria to the town of Rawa in western Iraq. He said this area is shaping up to be the group’s “last stand” following its ouster from nearly all of northern Iraq.
The most recent IS setback was in Tal Afar, west of the also recently-liberated city of Mosul, which had been the militants’ main stronghold in Iraq. The Iraqi government announced Thursday that Tal Afar had been returned to government control. Townsend called it a “stunningly swift” victory for the Iraqi army, moving “like a steamroller” into the city in a matter of days.
The IS militants, who swept into Iraq in 2014 against minimal resistance from the Iraqi army, still control a large area of eastern Syria along the border with Iraq, as well as parts of Raqqa, the capital of the group’s self-styled caliphate. Townsend said U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces have recaptured about half of Raqqa in ongoing fighting.
Assessing his 12 months in command of the U.S.-led coalition, Townsend said more tough fighting remains but signs are positive. It will be up to the Iraqi government, he said, to safeguard the gains troops have achieved since 2015, when Iraqi security forces began a U.S.-assisted counteroffensive in the western Anbar province.
“I think part of the rise of ISIS was…