ISIS figures killed in Iraq air strike; Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi not believed among them
Military asserts many top ISIS personnel killed, but fate of leader unknown
Eight senior figures from ISIS were killed in an air strike while meeting in a town in western Iraq, but the group's reclusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did not appear to be among them, residents of the town and hospital sources said.
Iraq said on Sunday its air force had hit the meeting and had also struck a convoy that was carrying Baghdadi to attend it. It said Baghdadi had been driven away from the convoy in an unknown condition.
The Iraqi military's announcement was the latest unconfirmed report of the possible death or injury of Baghdadi, who has survived a year of U.S.-led air strikes and multi-sided wars in two countries since proclaiming himself caliph of all Muslims after his forces swept through most of northern Iraq last year.
A Twitter site which publishes statements from ISIS said "rumours" that an air strike had targeted Baghdadi were false.
The United States military declined to comment on the Iraqi military's report.
"Iraqi air forces have bombed the convoy of the terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi while he was heading to Karabla to attend a meeting with Daesh commanders," the Iraqi military said in a statement.
Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS, also known as ISIL. Karabla is a town in Iraq's Anbar province near the Syrian border, an ISIS stronghold, not to be confused with Kerbala, a Shi'ite holy city in the south.
"The location of the meeting was also bombed and many of the group's leaders were killed and wounded. The fate of murderer al-Baghdadi is unknown and he was carried away by a vehicle. His health condition is still unclear," the military said.
Hospital sources and residents said airstrikes hit two houses and killed eight senior local leaders of an ISIS police force in the town.
Baghdadi galvanised militants
ISIS supporters said on Twitter that even if Baghdadi had been killed, his self-proclaimed caliphate straddling large areas of Iraq and Syria would survive.
"Do you think we would leave the State of the caliphate and abandon it, oh vile world?," asked one of his followers. "This is the religion of God, it rose on the skulls of heroes and martyrs and every time one of them is martyred we rise."
Baghdadi has galvanised militants from around the world, encouraged by his military successes and plans to redraw the map of the Middle East to create a self-sustaining caliphate.
His successes prompted the United States to re-engage in Iraq with air strikes against his fighters three years after pulling out following a long, costly occupation.
Russia, which has launched a bombing campaign to aid its Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad, says its main enemy is ISIS as well.
An ISIS fighter reached by telephone could not confirm whether Baghdadi had been in a convoy that was struck, but said the group would fight on whatever his fate: "Even if he was martyred then it will not affect Islamic State [ISIS]. We will lose a leader but there are a thousand Baghdadis."
It's the second time in a year that Iraq's military has announced it hit al-Baghdadi with airstrikes in Anbar province. Last November, the air force struck him at a meeting with militants, Iraq's defence and interior ministries said at the time.
In August, his No. 2 was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.
Al-Baghdadi, believed to be in his early 40s, has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. Since taking the reins of ISIS in 2010, he has transformed it from a local branch of al-Qaeda into an independent transnational military force.
His forces have seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, killed thousands of people, beheaded and raped hostages and drawn the U.S. troops and warplanes back into the region, where Washington is leading a campaign of airstrikes by a multinational coalition.
Baghdadi said he has accepted oaths of allegiance from supporters in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.
With files from The Associated Press