Iraqi officials claim that their air forces struck the convoy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as well as a meeting of other ISIS leaders in western Iraq yesterday. The US is skeptical that Baghdadi got hit, and ISIS sources flat-out deny it, but the Iraqis insist that they at least hit the self-styled caliph in the air strike. Reuters reports that the Iraqis claim they got eight ISIS leaders at the meeting, at least:
Eight senior figures from Islamic State 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 U.S. military official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has not seen any indications Baghdadi was killed or injured during the operation.
“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.
Later, the Iraqis said Baghdadi’s status was “unclear” after the strikes. Even without Baghdadi, the air strike is a rare bright spot for the Iraqi forces, who have been retreating for almost two years against ISIS. The ability to acquire accurate real-time intel on a high-level ISIS meeting is impressive, if the Iraqis managed that on their own. Thus far they have few victories against ISIS, and most of those belong to either the Kurds or the Iranian-backed militias on which the Iraqi government now has to rely.
Even if Baghdadi died in this attack, ISIS would undoubtedly have some sort of succession plan in place. Baghdadi was rumored to have been seriously injured several months ago in a US air strike and mostly removed from operational issues ever since. At that point, ISIS would have started gaming out his death, which would be easier while Baghdadi is around to settle those matters. The best possible outcome would be to have a power struggle after his death, but we can’t assume that will happen automatically. Having eight of those options reach room temperature raises the odds that Iraq may have disrupted those succession plans.