Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, has left northern Iraq to lead the battle against Iraqi army forces encircling the western city of Ramadi after a two-month lull in fighting, according to a senior Iraqi officer.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the officer said the Iraqi government has received “almost certain intelligence” that Baghdadi has moved to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which although besieged by regular Iraqi army forces and US-trained tribal fighters has not witnessed much fighting in the past two months.
Baghdadi’s move comes after Iraq agreed to share intelligence on ISIS with Russia, which wants to join a US-led campaign against the group, as well as Iran and Syria where ISIS controls large parts of territory.
Baghdadi also introduced changes to the extremist group’s leadership by appointing new commanders “in an attempt to restructure and prompt the group to once again carry out terrorist operations against the regular army and affiliated militias,” the officer said.
ISIS seized the province in early 2014 as Iraqi forces positioned in Mosul in northern Iraq deserted their bases ahead of the group’s advance.
Efforts by the Iraqi government to retake the province have stalled in the last two months—a lull the officer attributed to differences between Baghdad and Washington over the role of a coalition of Shi’ite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization forces, in the fight against ISIS.
Baghdad initially relied on the Popular Mobilization to battle ISIS but its role dwindled due to fears that it may carry out acts of revenge against Sunnis whom it accuses of backing the extremist group.
Meanwhile, Washington has denied that its troops are taking part in ground operations against ISIS in Iraq, dismissing recent media reports on the issue as “inaccurate.”
Washington’s embassy in Baghdad has said the US-led coalition continues to target ISIS’s positions with airstrikes in Anbar province and provide Iraqi government forces with military equipment and advice.
Asked about Washington’s denial, the officer said: “We cannot talk of a deployment of large ground forces but the present [US] experts and advisers have been backed with new forces consisting of two regiments and equipped with weapons and Apache aircraft.”
According to the source, the new deployment comes against the backdrop of “understandings” between Anbar’s tribal sheikhs and Washington whom he said “categorically reject the participation of the Popular Mobilization” in battles against ISIS.