BAGHDAD — U.S. warplanes launched air strikes on what U.S. officials said was a gathering of Islamic State commanders near the militant-held city of Mosul on Friday, in one of the most prominent assaults on the jihadist group’s leadership since the air war started here in August.
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command could not confirm if Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was at the gathering targeted Friday. The strikes destroyed a convoy of 10 armed trucks, the spokesman, Col. Patrick Ryder, said.
“We cannot confirm if ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was among those present” in the convoy destroyed near Mosul, Ryder said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.
Mosul, a city of roughly 1.5 million people, was seized by Islamic State militants in June. Al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate from that northern Iraqi city in his first appearance as the group’s leader on July 5. Their military victory in Mosul granted the Islamic State command over one of Iraq’s largest cities, where they have imposed a strict version of sharia law on the local population, residents say.
Al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi born in the city of Samarra, is said to have been working as an Islamic preacher when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. He then turned to militancy, and was detained by U.S. forces at Camp Bucca for four years.
It was there that al-Baghdadi is believed to have met and trained with al-Qaida operatives, eventually rising to lead the Islamic State. His militant group now controls vast tracts of land that straddle the border between Iraq and Syria.
Also Friday, U.S. warplanes struck several targets in Iraq’s western Anbar province, Ryder said. The strikes, near al-Qaim at the Syrian border, destroyed an Islamic State vehicle and several checkpoints, he said.
On Saturday, Iraqi government officials and tribal chiefs in Anbar reported fresh U.S. air strikes near al-Qaim that they said also targeted and killed some of al-Baghdadi’s top aides. The raids could not be confirmed.
The Islamic State jihadists have overrun large areas of Anbar in recent weeks and now control a majority of the province. Anbar was the epicenter of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. troops during the Iraq war, but local tribal leaders eventually turned against the militants.
Those same Sunni tribesmen are now requesting U.S. assistance to beat back Islamic State advances in Anbar, where the jihadists have massacred members of tribes resisting their rule. Since late October, the Islamic State has executed hundreds of members of the Albu Nimr tribe in Anbar, tribal leaders said. The Obama administration has authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq, including trainers and advisers that will specifically deploy to Anbar province.