A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al Baghdadi made a rare public appearance at a mosque in the center of Mosul, on July 5, 2014..
A high level Kurdish dignitary said Wednesday that there is information that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is still alive and well in the besieged city of Mosul.
Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff to President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masud Barazani, said his government had this information even though American intelligence officials have said that ISIS members were retreating from Mosul and leaving to Syria.
"Baghdadi is there and if he will be killed it will bring down the entire ISIS structure," Hussein said to the English newspaper The Independent.
He asserted that the terror organization will have trouble picking a successor with the amount of prestige that Baghdadi enjoys.
Hussein added that if it is true that Baghdadi was in Mosul, it will make the entire military operation more difficult, because Baghdadi's people will "fight to the death."
"Of course we will win. the question is how long it will take," Hussein said.
On Wednesday US-backed Iraqi forces moved closer to a town south of Mosul where aid groups and regional officials say Islamic State has executed dozens of prisoners.
Islamic State video purports to show clashes east of Mosul [November 2016]
A military statement said security forces advanced to the edge of Hammam al-Alil, a thermal water resort, after an elite unit breached the eastern limits of Mosul, the ultra-hardline group's last major city stronghold in Iraq.
The battle that started on Oct. 17 with air and ground support from a US-led coalition is shaping up as the largest in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003.
Mosul still has a population of 1.5 million people, much more than any of the other cities captured by Islamic State two years ago in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The United Nations cited reports on Tuesday that Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL, is attempting to displace Hammam al-Alil's estimated population of 25,000 for use as human shields and protection against air and artillery strikes.
"We have grave concerns for the safety of these and the tens of thousands of other civilians who have reportedly been forcibly relocated by ISIL in the past two weeks," UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.
The town, 15 km south of Mosul, had a pre-war population of 65,000, a local official said.
Aid organizations, local officials and Mosul residents have cited reports that IS has executed dozens of people in Hammam al-Alil and barracks nearby on suspicion of planning rebellions in and around Mosul to aid the advancing troops.
Abdul Rahman al-Waggaa, a member of the Nineveh provincial council, told Reuters last week that most of the victims were former police and army members. The men were shot dead, he said, quoting the testimony of remaining residents of the villages and people displaced from the area.
Security forces advancing north on the western bank of the Tigris River recaptured five villages on Wednesday, the closest of them just 5 km from Hammam al-Alil, according to military statements.
Just across the river from those forces lie the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, which the Iraqi government says was bulldozed last year as part of Islamic State's campaign to destroy symbols which the Sunni Muslim zealots consider idolatrous. Army troops heading north on that side of the Tigris have yet to reach the area.Reuters contributed to this report.
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