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7,000 Islamic State operatives remain in Iraq - security chiefs

Up to 7,000 Islamic State group (IS) affiliates remain in Iraq after the fall of Mosul, where the group's leader declared the self-styled caliphate three years ago, Iraqi officials said.

There are an estimated 4,000 militants in addition to 3,000 supporters who were employed by the group and received salaries, intelligence and defence chiefs said.

In Syria, there are said to be up to 7,000 militants and 5,000 supporters.

Last summer, the US claimed the military campaigns in Iraq and Syria had taken 45,000 enemy combatants off the battlefield and reduced the total number of IS fighters to about 15,000.

On July 10, Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared the liberation of Mosul, after nine months of warfare.

IS swept into Mosul in summer 2014 when it conquered much of northern and western Iraq.

The extremists declared a caliphate and governed according to a harsh and violent interpretation of Islamic law. The militants rounded up their opponents and killed them en masse, often documenting the massacres with video and photos.

Two days after the declaration of Mosul's liberation, Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, cautioned that the battle in Iraq is not over.

He said he believes Iraqi troops still need time to oust remaining IS fighters from Mosul.

Once that is done, he said, they will probably regroup before launching their fight against the IS in Tal Afar and other remaining insurgent strongholds in western Iraq.

IS still controls territories in parts of Ninawa and Anbar, as well as Hawija in Kirkuk and in pockets elsewhere.

Last week, Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, warned that the world still faces threats from IS militants despite their territorial losses.

He said officials still worry that a small number of skilled fighters could move out of the region and launch attacks in the West or in their homelands.

In Syria's Raqqa, IS's self-proclaimed capital, US-backed Syrian forces encircled the city, breaching the fortified defences and moving closer to the heart of the city.

Officials are predicting a long, tough battle, estimating that more than 2,000 militants are holed up with their families and tens of thousands of civilians in the city's centre.

Lt Gen Townsend said US intelligence estimates put the number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria combined at 12,000 to 15,000.

That was down from an estimate of 19,000 to 25,000 in February 2016, and 20,000 to 31,000 in 2014.

Amid reports that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed, Iraqi intelligence officials said he is still alive.

"We will be reviving (IS) if we killed Baghdadi now," one of the top officials said, adding that the strategy is to get rid of his possible successors first.

"We want to cripple the group in order to end it. We don't want to give them a window for a comeback."

There have been conflicting reports of al-Baghdadi's death, including a claim by Moscow in late May that there was a "high probability" he was killed in a Russian air strike in the southern outskirts of Raqqa.

Lt Gen Townsend earlier said he does not know if al-Baghdadi is dead or alive.

"I suppose it probably doesn't really matter. If no-one knows if he's alive or dead, someone is guiding (IS), the organisation," he said.

"And what we have seen with all these paramount leaders is, you take them out, and someone else steps up."

AP

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