After a week of frantic speculation about the health of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iranian hard-line news website has reported the most outlandish claim yet -- that the Iraqi militant supremo died in an Israeli hospital.
Fars News, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), claimed on April 26 that before his death Baghdadi had been hospitalized in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights for treatment after being injured in a "joint attack of the Iraqi Army and popular forces."
Last week, a report by Britain's Guardian newspaper that Baghdadi had sustained serious, even life-threatening injuries sparked a flood of speculation about the health and whereabouts of the IS leader.
The Guardian said that its sources -- including Iraqi government adviser Hisham al-Hashimi -- said Baghdadi had been injured in a March 18 U.S.-led air strike in Iraq's Nineveh Province. The Pentagon later denied that Baghdadi had been hit or targeted in the strike.
Fars also claimed that IS in Iraq had gone so far as to have "already pledged allegiance to a new leader called Abdul Rahman al-Sheijar, alias Abu Ali Afri."
Newsweek reported last week claims that Afri, a former physics teacher, had been standing in for Baghdadi as the IS leader recovered from his alleged injuries.
Apart from the claim that Baghdadi is "clinically dead" and not merely badly injured, here are two main elements of the rumor of the IS leader's fate, as published by Fars, that differ from other accounts.
First, while Fars News followed The Guardian story by writing that Baghdadi had been injured in an "air strike on western Iraq on March 18," the hard-line outlet refused to give the United States credit for the attack. Instead, Fars claimed that the Iraqi Army and "popular forces," a reference to the Iran-backed Shi'ite militias that have been fighting IS in Iraq, had been responsible for the strike.
Second, Fars claimed that Baghdadi had been treated in a hospital in Israeli-held territory close to the Syrian border, a detail that was -- unsurprisingly -- not made in any other report about Baghdadi's fate.
Fars' inclusion of this detail is in line with previous claims made by some Iranian officials, who have accused Israel and its Mossad intelligence agency of creating or helping to create IS. In November, for example, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said -- in comments published by Fars -- that Mossad had not only had "a role in the formation of IS" but had also "supported its function."
As the rumors of Baghdadi's death began to spread on April 27, The Guardian's Martin Chulov -- who co-wrote the newspaper's April 21 story about Baghdadi's reported injuries -- offered a sober assessment of the claims in a tweet.
Chulov said that he could not confirm the rumors that Baghdadi had died, and that his sources said the IS leader was still alive. Baghdadi had "spinal injuries," Chulov said, and is being treated by physicians in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
IS's "media mujahedin" -- activists who use social media to spread pro-IS news and material -- also rushed to deny that Baghdadi had been killed.
On April 25, leading Russian-language IS media activist Murad Atayev warned his 450 followers on Facebook not to believe rumors about Baghdadi's demise.
"Brothers, let's not be hasty with news about the alleged death of Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not a single official IS source has confirmed that news, where are you getting such information?!" Atayev wrote.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk