Washington: President Donald Trump on Sunday said the elusive leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed, dying ''like a dog" in a daring night-time raid by US special forces in northwest Syria.
Trump told the nation in a televised address from the White House that US forces killed a "large number" of Islamic State (IS) group militants during the raid, which culminated with Baghdadi cornered in a tunnel, where he detonated a suicide vest.
"He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way," Trump said, adding that three of Baghdadi's children were also killed in the blast.
Trump said the raid — involving eight helicopters flying more than an hour from an undisclosed base — was carried out with cooperation from Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
He also thanked the Syrian Kurds "for certain support they were able to give us”. Special forces "executed a dangerous and daring night-time raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style," he said.
Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, described the dramatic message the president and his advisers received as they monitored the raid from the White House Situation Room.
“The commander of the mission called and said, ‘100 percent confidence, Jackpot’ — meaning Baghdadi was dead — O'Brien said on NBC. "That was great news.”
At its height, IS controlled swaths of Iraq and Syria in a self-declared caliphate, brutally imposing a puritanical version of Islam.
The group planned or inspired terrorism attacks across Europe, while using social media to lure foreign volunteers.
It took years of war, during which IS became notorious for mass executions and sickening hostage beheadings, before its final slice of territory in Syria was seized this March.
Baghdadi's death gives a big political boost to Trump as he faces an impeachment inquiry and after his abrupt decision to withdraw a small deployment of US forces from Syria raised fears that it would allow IS remnants to regroup and leave Kurdish forces vulnerable to a Turkish invasion.
Trump took a storm of criticism for the move, including from his Republican allies. On Sunday, however, they had little but praise. Several world leaders joined in the approbation, though some added words of caution.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Twitter that it was "a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism." British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the raid "an important moment in our fight against terror" but cautioned that the fight was "not yet over."
An Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei, tweeted that Baghdadi's death was not the end of IS terror "but just the end of a chapter."
But Russia raised doubts. "The Defense Ministry does not have reliable information... concerning the umpteenth 'death' of Baghdadi," spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
Baghdadi's death has been reported several times over the years. Trump said there was no doubt, however, saying a DNA field test had confirmed his identity.
And Defense Secretary Mark Esper — who issued a statement hailing "a great day for America and a great day for the world" — told CNN the raiding team had both visual and DNA confirmation.
In Washington, Democrats commended the intelligence community, the military professionals and the US partners involved but cautioned that the IS threat was not over, particularly after Trump's decision — since partially reversed — to leave Syria.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi demanded that her chamber be briefed on the raid and on Trump's broader regional policies, adding that "the Russians, but not top congressional leadership, were notified" in advance.
But Trump seemed to relish delivering the news to the public — after hinting at it in a tweet late Saturday — spending nearly an hour at the podium. "This is the biggest there is," he said.
A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, had reported that US helicopters dropped forces in an area of Syria's Idlib province where "groups linked to the Islamic State group" were present.
The monitoring group, based in Britain but with sources in Syria, said the helicopters targeted a home and a car outside the village of Barisha. The operation killed nine people, including an IS senior leader called Abu Yamaan, as well as a child and two women, it said.
An AFP correspondent in Barisha said the targeted house was flattened, leaving nothing but gray rubble. A nearby resident who gave his name as Abdel Hameed said he rushed to the site after hearing a ruckus in the night.
"The home had collapsed," he said, and there were two bodies in the burned hulk of a car.
An inhabitant of a nearby camp for the displaced said he had heard helicopters and air strikes. They "were flying very low, causing great panic among the people," Ahmed Hassawi said by phone. Though other jihadists operate there, the area is nominally under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Barisha is in a mountainous area less than three miles (five kilometers) from Turkey and near a main border crossing. Turkey, which has been waging an offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria and with which the US partnered to combat IS, "knew we were going in," Trump said.
A senior Turkish official told AFP that "to the best of my knowledge, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi arrived at this location 48 hours prior to the raid”.
The commander-in-chief of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, said the operation came after "joint intelligence work" with American forces.
Abdi said on Twitter that IS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir was meanwhile "targeted in the village of Ain al-Baydah near Jarablus, in a coordinated operation between SDF intelligence and the US army”. A top Kurdish official, who declined to be named, said that Muhajir was also killed.
- $25 million reward -
Baghdadi — an Iraqi native believed to be 48 years old — was rarely seen.
After 2014 he disappeared from sight, only surfacing in a video in April with an assault rifle at his side, as he encouraged followers to "take revenge" after the group's territorial defeat.
His reappearance was seen as a reassertion of his leadership of a group that had spread as far as Asia and Africa and claimed several deadly attacks in Europe. The US State Department had posted a $25 million reward for information on his whereabouts.