Daesh 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 militants, a US defence official said Baghdadi had fled to avoid being trapped inside.
It was the latest sign that Daesh 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 militants in the city.
“He was in Mosul at some point before the offensive…. He left before we isolated Mosul and Tal Afar,” a town to the west, the official said.
“He probably gave broad strategic guidance and has left it to battlefield commanders.”
Baghdadi, who declared Daesh´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.
‘Ran away like chickens’
In recent days Iraqi forces have retaken a series of neighbourhoods in west Mosul as well as the provincial government headquarters and a museum where Daesh militants filmed themselves destroying priceless artefacts.
The military said Wednesday they had also taken the infamous Badush prison northwest of Mosul where Daesh reportedly executed hundreds of people and held captured Yazidi women.
On Thursday Iraqi forces were “combing the city centre area to defuse (bombs in) homes and shops and buildings,” Lieutenant Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammedawi of Iraq´s elite Rapid Response Division told AFP.
Forces were also “searching for snipers in the city centre,” Mohammedawi said.
The area is located on the edge of Mosul´s Old City, a warren of narrow streets and closely spaced houses that could see some of the toughest fighting of the battle.
“Currently there is no order from the operations command to advance toward the Old City. We will advance when this order is issued,” Mohammedawi said.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under Daesh rule in Mosul.
Those who did manage to escape the city said the militants were growing increasingly desperate.
Abdul Razzaq Ahmed, a 25-year-old civil servant, was seized by militant fighters as they retreated from the neighbourhood of Al-Mansur.
“We were used as human shields” said Ahmed, who managed to escape along with hundreds of other civilians to Iraqi police waiting outside the city.
Rayan Mohammed, a frail 18-year-old who was once given 60 lashes for missing prayers, said the militants were scrambling in the face of the Iraqi offensive.
“They ran away like chickens,” he said.