Islamic State group chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reported to have abandoned Mosul, leaving local commanders behind to lead the battle against Iraqi forces advancing in the city. With Iraqi troops making steady progress in their assault to retake Mosul from the jihadists, a US defence official said Baghdadi had fled to avoid being trapped inside.
It was the latest sign that IS is feeling the pressure from twin US-backed offensives that have seen it lose much of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. Speaking to reporters in Washington, the defence official said Baghdadi had left Mosul before Iraqi forces seized control of a key road at the beginning of this month, isolating the jihadists in the city.
Baghdadi, who declared IS's cross-border "caliphate" at a Mosul mosque in 2014, in an audio message in November urged supporters to make a stand in the city rather than "retreating in shame".
Iraq launched the offensive to retake Mosul, which involves tens of thousands of soldiers, police and allied militia fighters, in October. After recapturing its eastern side, the forces set their sights on the city's smaller but more densely populated west.
West Mosul is the most heavily populated area under IS control and along with Raqa in Syria the last major urban centres it holds.
In Syria, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has been advancing on Raqa. Earlier this week its forces reached the Euphrates River, cutting the main road to the partly IS-held city of Deir Ezzor downstream.
A US official said Wednesday that a Marine Corps artillery battery had been sent into Syria to support the battle for Raqa, joining some 500 US special operations fighters who have been training and assisting the SDF.
The US has been leading a coalition since mid-2014 carrying out air strikes against the jihadists in both Syria and Iraq. Elsewhere in Syria, Turkish troops and their rebel allies have pushed south from the Turkish border and driven IS out of the northern town of Al-Bab.
Russian-backed government troops have meanwhile swept eastwards from Syria's second city Aleppo and seized a swathe of countryside from the jihadists.
The US defence official said IS was now looking beyond the seemingly inevitable losses of Mosul and Raqa.