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IS on defensive after U.S. airstrike causes change in leadership

An air bombardment against Islamic State (IS) by the U.S.-led coalition has seriously wounded the terror group's leader, sparking a change in management at the top that has put the radicals on the defensive, experts said.

Recent media reports said that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was severely injured in a U.S.-led coalition air strike, so much so that it is impossible for him to perform his duties.

Al-Baghdadi has been reportedly replaced by a former physics teacher, and the development raises the question of what might be next for IS, and whether the radicals' hold on parts of Syria and northern Iraq might start to loosen.

"Having declared himself 'Caliph' of IS, al-Baghdadi's severe wounding is significant, with only HOW significant in question," Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office, told Xinhua.

The militant Islamists have in recent months overtaken vast swaths of territory in Syria and northern Iraq, setting off alarm bells in the U.S., as Washington's ultimate fear is that the terrorists could use their base as a safe haven to plan strikes on U.S. soil.

That sparked a U.S.-led bombing campaign against the radical Islamists that, after several months, has weakened the terrorists, in spite of some territorial gains by IS.

"Despite recent lunges by IS forces against the biggest Iraqi oil refinery at Baiji and IS gains around Ramadi, overall IS has been badly damaged and thrown on the defensive," White said.

"It's vast perimeter that cannot be defended effectively everywhere has proven a salient weakness that has been exploited by Iraqi and Kurdish forces," he said.

IS has not been strong enough to subdue some hostile Iraqi tribes or Iraqi military garrisons within its domain, leaving pockets of resistance behind its lines. Meanwhile, the coalition bombing campaign is tearing away at its manpower, military hardware, and ability to mass forces for major operations, White said.

The loss of al-Baghdadi as a leader also begs the question of whether the new leader is up to the task of heading what has now become the world's most infamous terror group.

Not much is known about how al-Baghdadi stacked up in terms of actual leadership, but because he made himself so prominent and symbolic, harm to him probably has shaken some IS elements, White noted.

It is, however, difficult to measure the overall balance between shaken confidence versus increased militancy out of thirst for revenge affecting IS fighters, he added.

It is known that IS defeats and heavy losses at the hands of Iraqi, Syrian Kurdish and Iraqi Kurdish forces supported by heavy air power had demoralized quite a few fighters even before al- Baghdadi's wounding, forcing IS to publicly execute so-called deserters, slackers and traitors in its ranks.

But the extent of the psychological blow to IS will be determined, in part, by whether al-Baghdadi dies, remains too badly hurt or maimed to resume his role, or bounces back in a dramatic re-appearance, White said.

Meanwhile, IS has dismissed as "unfounded" reports that claimed al-Baghdadi was severely injured, and an IS spokesperson claimed al-Baghdadi was leading the IS militants in Anbar, Iraq, reported Rudaw, a pro-Kurdish news source cited by some international media.

[Source: By Matthew Rusling, Xinhua, Washington, 27Apr15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 29Apr15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.