BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition conducted a series of airstrikes targeting a gathering of Islamic State leaders near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday.
The airstrikes on Friday night destroyed a convoy consisting of 10 Islamic state armed trucks, said the defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe military operations.
He confirmed that coalition aircraft conducted a series of airstrikes “against what was assessed to be a gathering of ISIL leaders near Mosul,” using another acronym for the Islamic State group.
“We cannot confirm if ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was among those present,” he said. “We have no further information to provide regarding these strikes.”
The Islamic State group has proclaimed al-Baghdadi as caliph, or supreme leader, of the vast areas of territory in Iraq and Syria under its control and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.
Al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi militant believed to be in his early 40s, has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. Since taking the reins of the group in 2010, he has transformed it from a local branch of al-Qaida into an independent transnational military force, positioning himself as perhaps the pre-eminent figure in the global jihadi community.
Despite the airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, Sunni militants have continued to carrying out deadly bombings targeting Iraqi security forces and civilians.
A suicide truck bomber struck the convoy of a top Iraqi police officer killing eight people, including the ranking official, authorities said Saturday, in an attack that bore the hallmarks of militants from the Islamic State group.
The late Friday attack happened when the suicide attacker drove his bomb-laden truck into the convoy of police Lt. Gen. Faisal Malik al-Zamel, who was inspecting forces in the town of Beiji north of Baghdad, police said. The blast killed al-Zamel and seven other police officers, while wounding 15 people, hospital officials and police officers said.
Meanwhile on Saturday, a series of bombings in and around the capital Baghdad killed at least 43 people, with the deadliest blast hitting the city’s sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City, where a car bomb tore through a commercial area, killing 11 people and wounding 21.
There has been an uptick in the number of bombings blamed on Sunni militants in the capital and mostly targeting Shiites, feeding sectarian tensions in the city, as the security forces of the Shiite-led government battle the Sunni militants of the Islamic State group to the west and north of the capital. More recently, the attacks targeted Shiite pilgrims marking Ashoura, the highlight of the sect’s religious calendar.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Beiji, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, but suicide bombings have been the signature style of Sunni militants for more than a decade in Iraq.
Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, recognizing al-Zamel’s standing, led mourners at al-Zamel’s funeral on Saturday and a top army officer, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, vowed to avenge his death.
“Beiji will be the graveyard of Daesh,” said a clearly moved al-Saadi on state television. Al-Saadi, the army’s chief of operations in the province of Salahuddin, was using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Al-Saadi and al-Zamel have been leading the ongoing battle to rid Beiji, which is located in Salahuddin, of IS fighters who swept into the city last summer. “We have cleansed many of Beiji’s neighborhoods and we will shortly announce its complete liberation,” said al-Saadi.
A U.S.-led coalition has been launching airstrikes on Islamic State militants and facilities in Iraq and Syria for months, as part of an effort to give Iraqi forces the time and space to mount a more effective offensive. The Islamic State had gained ground across northern and western Iraq in a lightning advance in June and July, causing several of Iraq’s army and police divisions to fall into disarray.
On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more American troops to bolster Iraqi forces, including into Anbar province, where fighting with Islamic State militants has been fierce. The plan could boost the total number of American troops in Iraq to 3,100. There now are about 1,400 U.S. troops in Iraq, out of the 1,600 previously authorized.
“What is needed from the U.S. is that it should work to bring the Iraqi people together,” said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Iraqi lawmaker. “America, and others, should not become an obstacle that hinder the Iraqis’ ambitions for a free Iraqi decision that serves the interests of Iraq”
Besides the Sadr City bombing, at least nine people were killed and another 18 wounded when a car bomb tore through a commercial street lined with restaurants in the southeastern Baghdad neighborhood of al-Amin. Two car bombs also killed eight people and wounded 16 on a commercial street in Baghdad’s southwestern Amil neighborhood, police officials said.
A car bomb also detonated on a commercial street in Baghdad’s busy central al-Karadah district, killing seven people and wounding at least 21, officials said. In Yousifiya, a town just south of the capital, two people were killed and four wounded in a bombing near a fruit and vegetable market. Another car bomb struck Zafaraniya in southeastern Baghdad, killing six and wounding 13, officials said.
Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All police and hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
Associated Press Intelligence writer Ken Dilanian in Washington and AP writer Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.