Iraqi Forces Capture 5 Top ISIS Leaders Along Syria Border, U.S. Says

Iraqi forces in co-ordination with U.S.-backed Syrian forces have captured five senior leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, the U.S.-led coalition said Thursday in a statement, CBC reports. The arrest was a “significant blow to Daesh,” coalition spokesman Army Col. Ryan Dillon said, using the Arabic acronym for the extremist group. A Pentagon spokesperson, Marine Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, said the U.S. credited Iraqi security forces with the militants’ capture “on the Iraq-Syria border.”

“These arrests are a significant blow to ISIS, as we continue to remove its leadership and fighters from the battlefield,” Rankine-Galloway said.

U.S. intelligence also assisted in the cross-border sting, which had been in the works for three months tracking the group of leaders through Turkey and Syria, two Iraqi officials told The New York Times.

The five commanders, described as “some of the most wanted” leaders of the extremist group, were named as Saddam al-Jammel, Mohammed al-Qadeer, Ismail al-Eithawi, Omar al-Karbouli and Essam al-Zawbai – four are said to be Iraqi and one of Syrian nationality. They were shown on TV in yellow prison uniforms Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed last month to “take all necessary measures” against IS militants in Syria.The five men had featured in IS execution videos filmed while the group ruled over vast swathes of Iraq, the official said. One of those detained, former Syrian anti-government fighter Saddam al-Jamal, allegedly confessed to Iraqi forces that he had supplied IS with arms stolen from the Syrian army.

Iraq has been carrying out airstrikes on militant positions in neighbouring Syria since last year. Despite Abadi’s declaration of “victory over IS” in December, the group have shown a resurgence, carrying out deadly attacks across Iraq in the run-up to parliamentary elections this month.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Islamic State group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is said to be hiding in eastern Syria, moving around with only a small group of followers – including one of his sons – according to an Iraqi intelligence official. The senior Iraqi official said Baghdadi was in the Hajin, Shaddadi, Suwar and Markadah areas and “travels accompanied by four or five people, including his son and son-in-law”, The New Arab adds.

“His movements are discreet and he never travels in a convoy,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Originally from Iraq, Baghdadi has been dubbed the “most wanted man on the planet” and the United States is offering a $25 million reward for his capture. The intelligence official added that the capture of the five commanders signalled a that Baghdadi’s time may soon be up, adding that the cross-border raid occured on 24 March. The official said 39 IS fighters had been killed in cross-border air raids by Iraqi forces in Syria over the past few weeks and that the group had seen a “sharp decrease” in numbers.

Iraq’s interior ministry said in February that Baghdadi was being treated at a field hospital for wounds sustained in an earlier airstrike. In mid-2017, Russia said it had probably killed Baghdadi in a late May air raid near Raqqa in Syria, but later said it was still trying to verify his fate. In September, an American military chief said the jihadist chief was still alive and probably hiding in eastern Syria’s Euphrates Valley.

ISIS fighters no longer control significant pockets of territory inside Iraq, but do maintain a grip inside Syria along Iraq’s border. The U.S.-led coalition supported Iraqi ground forces and Syrian fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in the more than three-year war against ISIS. After Iraqi forces retook the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS last summer, Syrian forces on the other side of the border claimed a series of swift victories, but the campaign stalled recently when Turkey launched a cross-border raid into Syria’s north. Earlier this month, the coalition announced a drive to clear the final pockets of ISIS territory inside Syria.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted about the anti-ISIS raid Thursday, saying those arrested were the “five most wanted” ISIS “leaders.” It was unclear what criteria, if any, Trump was using to describe the ISIS operatives as the “five most wanted”, Military Times adds.

A U.S. national security official said there were no indications that the operation had captured Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS who has long been the coalition’s top target. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the targets publicly and requested anonymity.

Last year, the Pentagon said that there were “some indicators” that al-Baghdadi was still alive a month after Russia claimed to have killed him in a strike near the Syrian city of Raqqa. None of the statements released Thursday from the president or the coalition named the ISIS fighters arrested.

The militant group swept into Iraq in the summer of 2014, taking control of nearly a third of the country. At the height of the group’s power their self-proclaimed caliphate stretched from the edges of Aleppo in Syria to just north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. With the group’s physical caliphate now largely destroyed, anti-ISIS operations are increasingly focused on targeting the militants’ remaining leadership.