WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Islamic State militants no longer control any territory in Syria, President Donald Trump proudly announced Friday, though the U.S. was still launching airstrikes and sporadic fighting continued on the ground against the group's holdouts.
"It's about time," Trump exclaimed on an airport tarmac in Florida. He held up maps indicating the territory once held by the IS group in Iraq and Syria had shrunk to nothing.
Elimination of the last IS stronghold in Baghouz in eastern Syria would mark the end of the militants' self-declared caliphate, which at its height blanketed large parts of Syria and Iraq. The campaign to take back the territory by the U.S. and its partners has spanned five years and two U.S. presidencies, unleashed more than 100,000 bombs and killed untold numbers of fighters and civilians.
Controlling territory and assets, such as oil facilities, has given the group a stream of revenue and a place from which to launch attacks around the world. However, if history is a guide, the reconquering of IS-held territory could prove a short-lived victory unless Iraq and Syria fix a problem that gave rise to the extremist movement in the first place: governments pitting one ethnic or sectarian group against another.
Trump has been teasing the victory for days, most recently Wednesday when he said the milestone would be achieved by that night.
On Friday, after a flight to Florida, Trump held up a map to supporters cheering him on the tarmac. Then he turned to reporters standing nearby.
"Here's ISIS on Election Day," he said, linking coalition gains since then to his presidency. He pointed to a swath of red signifying the group's previous territorial hold, and then to a version without any red, "Here's ISIS right now."
But Trump appeared to be overstating his administration's contribution to the anti-IS fight. A close-up of the map showed that he was displaying the group's footprint at a high-point in 2014, not Election Day 2016, by which point the U.S.-backed campaign was well underway.
And American officials familiar with the situation in Syria said that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — who had not announced victory and weren't planning to on Friday — were still battling remaining IS fighters who were holed up in tunnels along river cliffs in Baghouz. Another official confirmed that the U.S. launched airstrikes there on Friday and that the fighting continued to clear out final pockets of IS members.
Associated Press journalists in Baghouz said coalition fighters were still conducting mop-up operations in the village after seizing an encampment Tuesday where the extremists had been for months. SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told AP earlier Friday that there were still IS fighters and women and children hiding in caves near Baghouz. He said final operations were ongoing and there appeared to be several hundred people still inside. Other SDF officials said the camp was full of corpses, and some civilians and IS fighters were still handing themselves over.
As the militants have put up a desperate, last-ditch fight for weeks, they have kept up their recruiting efforts, as Trump noted.
"ISIS uses the internet better than almost anyone, but for all those susceptible to ISIS propaganda, they are now being beaten badly at every level," the president tweeted. "They will always try to show a glimmer of vicious hope, but they are losers and barely breathing."
He warned would-be recruits: "Think about that before you destroy your lives and the lives of your family!"
The coalition siege has been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians in Baghouz, most of them families of IS members. In recent weeks, they have been flowing out, exhausted, hungry and often wounded. The sheer number who emerged — nearly 30,000 since early January, according to Kurdish officials — took the Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise.
According to the officials, the SDF is moving slowly and carefully, and is willing to wait out the IS fighters who are out of food and low on water. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss mission details.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump was briefed by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan who was traveling with him to Florida where he was meeting Caribbean leaders at his Mar-a-Lago club. "We got the information from the DOD," she said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking in Jerusalem, said Thursday the U.S.-led coalition had achieved "amazing" results in Syria.
But he said, "The threat from radical Islamic terrorism remains."
Baldor reported from Washington. AP writers Philip Issa in Baghouz, Syria, Robert Burns, Zeke Miller and Kevin Freking in Washington and Matthew Lee in Jerusalem contributed.