Patrick Cockburn speaks to a Kurdish official who says ISIS were jubilant to have their leader leave Mosul where the group faces defeat – but when the jihadis are gone there are fears about how the territory they once-held will be divided
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis and self-declared Caliph, escaped from the siege of Mosul two months ago when the road to the west was briefly re-opened by a fierce counter attack by Isis fighters, according to a senior Kurdish official.
“Isis used 17 suicide car bombs from Mosul and some of their units from Syria to clear the road leading out of Mosul for a few hours,” said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, in an interview with The Independent. He says that he and other Kurdish leaders believe that Isis would only carry out such an elaborate operation, in which they suffered heavy casualties, in order to bring al-Baghdadi to safety.
The escape took place after the fall of east Mosul and before the Iraqi security forces began their final attack on Isis-held west Mosul on 19 February. Mr Hussein says that Isis “brought 300 of their fighters from Syria and it was a very fierce fight.” The only possible escape route out of Mosul for Isis is to the west, through territory held by the Hashd al-Shaabi Shia militia who were forced to retreat, enabling Isis briefly to gain control of the road.
“I believe myself that they freed al-Baghdadi,” says Mr Hussein saying that the Isis unit from Syria returned there immediately and monitoring of Isis radio traffic showed that they were jubilant that they had carried out a successful operation. Al-Baghdadi, who became leader of Isis in 2010, is the movement’s iconic leader who led it to a series of spectacular victories including the seizure of Mosul in 2014. His death or capture would be a further body blow to the movement, which has lost much of its territory in Iraq and Syria.
Mr Hussein said that he expected Isis to survive after the fall of Mosul, where its fighters still hold the Old City which the UN says has a population of 400,000. “But I don’t think they will survive as a state,” he said. He expects Isis will revert to being a guerrilla-type organisation carrying out terror attacks but without its previous resources. Despite its current implosion, it still has sanctuaries in different parts of Iraq and Syria where it can try to regenerate itself.
A serious problem in Iraq is that there is no political plan for sharing power or running the regained territory after the fall of Mosul and the defeat of Isis. Mr Hussein said that Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is expected in Irbil on Tuesday to see the status of the anti-Isis campaign for himself. Mr Kushner arrived in Baghdad on Monday, accompanying the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, and saw the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.