Air strikes target Islamic State leaders' gathering in Iraq: TV report

Thick black smoke rises over an eastern Kobane neighbourhood following an airstrike on Nov 8, 2014. Picture taken from the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border. US-led air strikes have targeted a gathering of Islamic State leaders in Iraq in a tow
Thick black smoke rises over an eastern Kobane neighbourhood following an airstrike on Nov 8, 2014. Picture taken from the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border. US-led air strikes have targeted a gathering of Islamic State leaders in Iraq in a town near the Syrian border, possibly including the group's top commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Al-Hadath TV channel said on Saturday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BAGHDAD (REUTERS) - US-led air strikes have targeted a gathering of Islamic State leaders in Iraq in a town near the Syrian border, possibly including the group's top commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Al-Hadath TV channel said on Saturday.

Iraqi security officials were not immediately available for comment on the report from the station, part of Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television, but two witnesses told Reuters an air strike targeted a house where senior Islamic State officers were meeting, near the western Iraqi border town of al-Qaim.

They said Islamic State fighters had cleared a hospital so that their wounded could be treated.

Islamic State fighters used loudspeakers to urge residents to donate blood, the witnesses said.

Residents said there were unconfirmed reports that Islamic State's local leader in the western Iraqi province of Anbar and his deputy were killed.

US officials would not confirm or deny whether Baghdadi, the group's overall leader, had been targeted.

One US official said that air strikes were carried out against a convoy near the northern city of Mosul, about 280km from al-Qaim, and against small Islamic State units elsewhere, but the US-led air strikes had not targeted an Islamic State gathering.

Al-Hadath said dozens of people were killed and wounded in the strike in al-Qaim, and that Baghdadi's fate was unclear.

Al-Qaim and the neighbouring Syrian town of Albukamal are on a strategic supply route linking territory held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The hardline Sunni Islamic State's drive to form a caliphate in the two countries has helped return sectarian violence to the dark days of 2006-2007, the peak of Iraq's civil war.

On Saturday night, a car bomb killed eight people in Baghdad's mostly Shi'ite Sadr City, police and hospital sources said, bringing to 28 the day's toll from bombs in the Iraqi capital and the western city of Ramadi.

Two bombs exploded in separate attacks in Baghdad's mainly Shi'ite Amil district, said a police source.

"A driver parked his car and went to a cigarette stall, then he disappeared. Then his car blew up, killing passers-by," the source said, describing one of the two attacks in Amil.

In the mostly Shi'ite al-Amin area of Baghdad, another car bomb killed eight people, medical sources said.

The attack by a suicide bomber on a checkpoint in Ramadi in Anbar killed five soldiers. "Before the explosion, the checkpoint was targeted with several mortar rounds. Then the suicide humvee bomber attacked it," said a police official.

"Some troops came to the scene. They were attacked by mortars. A confrontation took place for one hour."

There was no claim of responsibility for the bombings, but they resembled operations carried out by Islamic militants.

In the town of Baquba, 65km north-east of Baghdad, a gunman killed a Shi'ite militiaman, and a car bomb targeting a police officer killed his 10-year-old son, security sources said.

Western and Iraqi officials say US-led air strikes are not enough to defeat the Al-Qaeda offshoot and Iraq must improve the performance of its security forces to eliminate the threat from the group, which wants to redraw the map of the Middle East.

President Barack Obama has approved sending up to 1,500 more troops to Iraq, roughly doubling the number of US forces on the ground, to advise and retrain Iraqis in their battle against Islamic State.

The Iraqi prime minister's media office said the additional US trainers were welcome but the move, five months after Islamic State seized much of northern Iraq, was belated, state television reported.

The United States spent US$25 billion (S$32 billion) on the Iraqi military during the US occupation that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and triggered an insurgency that included Al-Qaeda.

Washington wants Iraq's Shi'ite-led government to revive an alliance with Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province which helped US Marines defeat Al-Qaeda.

Such an alliance would face a more formidable enemy in Islamic State, which has more firepower and funding.

Police Colonel Shaaban Barazan al-Ubaidi, commander of a rapid reaction force in Anbar, said security forces retook eight villages.

His account could not be immediately confirmed.