"Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has reportedly fled Mosul, leaving his followers to face the brunt of the battle alone, as the noose tightens around the group in the city.
Iraqi forces launched the drive to retake west Mosul on February 19th after seizing the city's eastern side the previous month.
They have already retaken several districts and neighbourhoods despite bad weather conditions and the densely populated, narrow streets which restrict the use of large armoured vehicles.
Local residents reportedly saw a convoy of cars and trucks heading west to the vast desert area that lies between Ninawa province and Anbar on the eve of the start of the attack on the western side of the city, Iraqi MP for Ninawa Abdulrahman al-Lwaizy told Diyaruna.
Al-Baghdadi "might indeed have been in Mosul’s right side before the attack began", he said, adding that he has "fled to the desert to hide there in expertly disguised camps".
Defeat is near
Intelligence sources also claim that al-Baghdadi has given members of ISIL's Shura council the green light to escape Mosul immediately, he said.
Those, according to al-Lwaizy, are responsible for "issuing Islamic rulings and spreading the group's extremist ideology".
Al-Baghdadi "absolutely does not want to sacrifice them because he is convinced they are important for the long run and without them the group cannot gain supporters and recruit more fighters", he said.
This is further evidence that ISIL "is nearing its end as a fighting group and will be shifting its focus to the ideological battle in the coming phase", al-Lwaizy said.
Once the group is defeated militarily, the fight must focus more aggressively on eradicating the group ideologically, he added.
Al-Baghdadi has called on his followers "to fight until their last breath and either get killed or commit suicide", he said.
"This does not come as an ideological directive or moral motivation as much as it reflects [al-Baghdadi's] fears that a growing number of these elements will get captured and provide information on the group's movements and most secret activities," he said.
Al-Baghdadi, who declared himself the "caliph" of all Muslims from Mosul’s Great Mosque in 2014, has not released a recorded speech since early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he called on his followers to fight the "unbelievers".
Unconfirmed media reports last month quoted local sources saying that he has sent his followers a written message, described as a "farewell sermon", in which he acknowledged his group's defeat.
Frustration among ISIL followers
ISIL fighters left behind in Mosul are getting increasingly frustrated as their defences are crumbling, strategic expert and former Iraqi military officer Ahmed al-Sharifi told Diyaruna.
Al-Baghdadi’s disappearance has "increased the frustration among his elements, who are no longer capable of sustaining their resistance", he told Diyaruna.
The militants "are asking about their 'caliph', his whereabouts and why he has left them alone in this hell, and wondering why he is not acting like a military commander and fighting with them instead", al-Sharifi said quoting local sources in west Mosul.
"There are many questions that reflect the deterioration and desperation they are experiencing," he added.
Al-Sharifi did not rule out the possibility that al-Baghdadi has fled Mosul to a "safe location in Syria".
His escape amounts to an "unofficial admission of defeat", Ninawa provincial council security committee member Hassan Shubeib al-Sabawi told Diyaruna.
"Many of the local fighters who pledged allegiance to this terrorist have realised, too late that they have been deserted by their leaders, and that they alone are paying the high price," he said. "They have hurt their people and their country by following a perverted ideology."
Al-Baghdadi and his followers now have to face the fact that "they have been cast into history’s trash bin", he said.