WASHINGTON – Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears to be still alive, a top U.S. military commander said Thursday, contradicting Russia's claims that it probably killed the top counterterror target months ago.
"Do I believe he's alive? Yes," said Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition forces fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, referring to al-Baghdadi.
At first, Townsend said his belief stemmed from a lack of evidence he had seen — "rumor or otherwise" — that al-Baghdadi was dead. But, he then added: "There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he's alive." Townsend did not elaborate on the intelligence.
Russian officials said in June there was a "high probability" that al-Baghdadi died in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, a month earlier.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters in Baghdad, Townsend said U.S. and coalition forces are actively searching for al-Baghdadi. If they find him, they probably will kill him rather than capture him, he said.
A good guess about where al-Baghdadi is hiding, Townsend said, would be the so-called Middle Euphrates River Valley, stretching approximately from the city of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria to the town of Rawa in western Iraq. He said this area is shaping up to be the group's "last stand" following its ouster from nearly all of northern Iraq.
The most recent IS setback was in Tal Afar, west of the also recently-liberated city of Mosul, which had been the militants' main stronghold in Iraq. The Iraqi government announced Thursday that Tal Afar had been returned to government control. Townsend called it a "stunningly swift" victory for the Iraqi army, moving "like a steamroller" into the city in a matter of days.
The IS militants, who swept into Iraq in 2014 against minimal resistance from the Iraqi army, still control a large area of eastern Syria along the border with Iraq, as well as parts of Raqqa, the capital of the group's self-styled caliphate. Townsend said U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces have recaptured about half of Raqqa in ongoing fighting.
Assessing his 12 months in command of the U.S.-led coalition, Townsend said more tough fighting remains but signs are positive. It will be up to the Iraqi government, he said, to safeguard the gains troops have achieved since 2015, when Iraqi security forces began a U.S.-assisted counteroffensive in the western Anbar province.
"I think part of the rise of ISIS was disenfranchised peoples, most of them Sunnis, who looked at Baghdad and they didn't see their government representing them or their interests or their future," he said. "And I think that's probably the most important thing that the government of Iraq has to do. It has to reach out, reconcile, bring all Iraqis together and be the government of all Iraqis."
Townsend said he hopes the U.S. government works out an arrangement for a long-term military presence in Iraq to minimize the chances of another IS-like episode. He said such talks are under way.
"We all saw what happened in 2011 when we parted ways completely," he said, referencing the pullout of U.S. troops under former President Barack Obama and Iraq's subsequent struggles.
"My personal view is I wouldn't want to repeat that," Townsend said. "So I think that our governments will work out something that will work for the future."
Townsend is ending his year in command in Baghdad and will hand off next week to another three-star Army general, Paul Funk II.
He credited the Trump administration with putting greater trust in him and other commanders to execute the counter-IS campaign.
"The current administration has pushed decision-making down into the military chain of command," Townsend said. "And I don't know of a commander in our armed forces that doesn't appreciate that."
"A key result of that is that we don't get second-guessed a lot," he added. "Our judgment here on the battlefield in the forward areas is trusted. And we don't get 20 questions with every action that happens on the battlefield and every action that we take."