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US, Iraqi officials say ISIS leader in hiding

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MOSUL, IRAQ/WASHINGTON: US and Iraqi officials believe the leader of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has left operational commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battle of Mosul.

He is now hiding out in the desert, focusing on his own survival.

It is impossible to confirm the whereabouts of the ISIS "caliph", who declared himself the ruler of all Muslims from Mosul's Great Mosque after his forces swept through northern Iraq in 2014.

But US and Iraqi intelligence sources said an absence of official communication from the group's leadership and the loss of territory in Mosul suggested he had abandoned the city, by far the largest population centre his group has ever held.

He has proved to be an elusive target, rarely using communication that can be monitored and moving constantly, often multiple times in one 24-hour cycle, the sources said.

From their efforts to track him, they believe he hides mostly among sympathetic civilians in familiar desert villages, rather than with fighters in their barracks in urban areas where combat has been under way, the sources said.

US-backed Iraqi forces began an operation five months ago to recapture Mosul, a city at least four times the size of any other the group has held.

Baghdadi himself has not released a recorded speech since early November last year, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he called on his followers to fight the "unbelievers" and "make their blood flow as rivers". - REUTERS

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