WASHINGTON: The US military conducted an operation against the elusive militant Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Saturday, a US official said, as US President Donald Trump prepared to make a “major statement” at the White House on Sunday morning.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was unable to say whether the operation against Baghdadi was successful.
Newsweek said it had been told by a US Army official briefed on the raid that Baghdadi was dead. It said the operation took place in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, and was carried out by special operations forces after receiving actionable intelligence.
The official, speaking to Reuters, did not disclose details of the operation and other US officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley announced late on Saturday that Trump would make a “major statement” at 9 AM EST (1300 GMT) on Sunday.
Gidley gave no further details as to the topic of Trump’s statement.
The president gave an indication that something was afoot earlier on Saturday night when he tweeted without explanation, “Something very big has just happened!”
Citing US media reports based on multiple government sources, AFP reported that Baghdadi may have killed himself with a suicide vest as US special operations forces descended.
He was the target of the secretly planned operation approved by President Donald Trump, officials said.
Officials told ABC News that biometric work was underway to firm up the identification of those killed in the raid, according to AFP.
Two Iranian officials told Reuters on Sunday that Iran was informed by sources in Syria that Baghdadi has been killed. “Iran was informed about Baghdadi’s death by Syrian officials who got it from the field,” one of the officials said. The second Iranian official confirmed it.
Reuters also reported that the Iraqi state television would air footage of the US raid. The broadcaster quoted an expert on terrorism saying that Iraqi intelligence agencies had helped pinpoint Baghdadi's location.
Trump has been frustrated by the US news media’s heavy focus on the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, which he calls an illegitimate witch hunt.
He has also faced withering criticism from both Republicans and Democrats alike for his US troop withdrawal from northeastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies.
Many critics of Trump’s Syria pullout have expressed worries that it would lead the IS militancy to regain strength and pose a threat to US interests. An announcement about Baghdadi’s death could help blunt those concerns.
Trump was expected to make the statement in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, which he has used to make a number of major announcements.
Just last week he used the same room to announce that a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds had taken hold.
For days, US officials had feared that IS would seek to capitalise on the upheaval in Syria. But they also saw a potential opportunity, in which IS leaders might break from more secretive routines to communicate with operatives, potentially creating a chance for the United States and its allies to detect them.
Baghdadi was long thought to hiding somewhere along the Iraq-Syria border. He has led the group since 2010, when it was still an underground al Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.
Baghdadi has also been erroneously reported dead several times in recent years.
On Sept 16, IS media network issued a 30-minute audio message purporting to come from Baghdadi, in which he said operations were taking place daily and called on supporters to free women jailed in camps in Iraq and Syria over their alleged links to his group.
In the audio message, Baghdadi also said the United States and its proxies had been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the United States had been “dragged” into Mali and Niger.
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At the height of its power IS ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
But the fall in 2017 of Mosul and Raqqa, its strongholds in Iraq and Syria respectively, stripped Baghdadi, an Iraqi, of the trappings of a caliph and turned him into a fugitive thought to be moving along the desert border between Iraq and Syria.
US air strikes killed most of his top lieutenants, and before IS published a video message of Baghdadi in April there had been conflicting reports over whether he was alive.
Despite losing its last significant territory, IS is believed to have sleeper cells around the world, and some fighters operate from the shadows in Syria’s desert and Iraq’s cities.