President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that fugitive ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria, in a major blow to the jihadist group.
Baghdadi killed himself during the raid by igniting a suicide vest, also killing three children, Trump said in a televised address from the White House. DNA test results from the aftermath of the raid had positively identified Baghdadi, he said.
"He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and his three children. His body was mutilated by the blasts. The tunnel had caved on him," Trump said, adding that he watched the operation along with Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other officials.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Trump on the operation Sunday, saying it "reflects our shared determination, together with the United States and all free countries, to fight terrorist organizations and states. This achievement is an important milestone, but the campaign is still ahead of us."
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Trump thanked Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iraq, as well as Syrian Kurds, for assistance in the operation, saying that Russia did not know the nature of the operation but allowed access to airspace it controls.
Iraq later confirmed that its National Intelligence Service found al-Baghdadi's location in Idlib province and provided it to the United States.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also said they provided the United States with al-Baghdadi's location, adding that the Turkish assault on northeast Syria had delayed the operation by more than a month.
Several hours later, they announced that al-Baghdadi's right-hand man and ISIS Spokesperson Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir was targeted and killed near Syria's Jarablus through joint work between SDF and U.S. intelligence.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said it had no reliable information on the operation. "The Russian Ministry of Defence does not have reliable information on the U.S. servicemen conducting in the Turkish-controlled part of the de-escalation zone of Idlib an operation on yet another 'elimination' of the former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," Major-General Igor Konashenkov was quoted by RIA as saying.
Asked whether the U.S. was aware of who al-Baghdadi's successors were, Trump said they were in American "sights." Esper later said it is hard to defeat the ideology driving ISIS, and that the United States must stay engaged.
No U.S. personnel were lost in the operation, while a number of the jihadist's companions were killed and eleven children were removed unharmed, he added. The president said al-Baghdadi died "like a dog" and "like a coward" and said U.S. forces were in the leader's compound for about two hours.
Trump said eight helicopters were used in the operation and that forces used explosives to enter the compound in order to avoid the main door, which was assumed to be booby-trapped. He said that the most dangerous part of the operation was flying in and out, over territories with Russian, Turkish and Syrian government "heavy fire."
Baghdadi has long been sought by the United States, as head of a jihadist group that at one point controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq, declaring a caliphate. ISIS has carried out atrocities against religious minorities and attacks on five continents in the name of a version of an ultra-fanatic Islam that horrified mainstream Muslims.
Commenting on the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, Trump said “I want our troops to come home but I do want to secure the oil,” adding he could “make a deal with ExxonMobil or one of our great companies” to extract oil from Syrian fields. He also said the United States made a mistake during the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “If they’re going into Iraq, keep the oil.”
On Saturday, Secretary Esper said the several hundred U.S. troops would be sent to oil-rich areas in Syria. Russia harshly criticized the decision, calling it "international state banditry."