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US airstrikes target ISIS leaders gathered in Iraq, says TV report

A gathering of Islamic State leaders in Iraq in a town near the Syrian border was hit by US-led airstrikes Saturday, reported Al-Hadath, part of Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television.

US 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 television channel said on Saturday.

Iraqi security officials were not immediately available for comment on the report from Al-Hadath, 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.

When asked about the airstrikes, US officials confirmed destroyed a moving, 10-vehicle Islamic State convoy near the Iraqi city of Mosul  but officials said on Saturday it was unclear whether the group's top commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was present at the time.

Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman at the U.S. military's Central Command,  said the U.S. military had reason to believe that the convoy was the product of a gathering of Islamic State leaders. 

An Islamic State supporter contacted by Reuters said the strike near al Qaim hit a local market, killing at least eight people.

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 neighboring Syrian town of Albukamal are on a strategic supply route linking territory held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

BOMBINGS

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

It has also created a cross-border sanctuary for Arab militants, as well as foreign fighters whose passports could allow them to evade detection in Western airports.

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.

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

In the town of Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) northeast 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.

U.S. TROOPS

Western and Iraqi officials say U.S.-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 U.S. forces on the ground, to advise and retrain Iraqis in their battle against Islamic State.

"Even with the additional personnel, the mission is not changing," an administration official told reporters on a conference call Friday. "The mission continues to be one of training, advising, and equipping Iraqis and it's the Iraqis who are fighting on the ground in combat." 

 "This is a different model and approach to the previous efforts in Iraq when we had large-scale ground forces in combat,” the official said, referring to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, ordered by former president George W. Bush.

The Iraqi prime minister's media office said the additional U.S. 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 $25 billion on the Iraqi military during the U.S. 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 U.S. 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. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Philip Stewart and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Kevin Liffey)

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