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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

US-backed Forces Sweeping to Victory in Baghuz

By Jeff Seldin March 21, 2019

U.S.-backed forces are sweeping through the rubble in what is left of the Islamic State's final enclave in northeastern Syria, edging closer to declaring victory over the terror group's self-declared caliphate.

The Syrian Democratic Forces said troops have been searching for groups of IS fighters who may be lurking in trenches and in a complex system of caves and tunnels that hid thousands of people from coalition air and artillery strikes for weeks.

There are also concerns about mines and booby traps, even in the most unlikely of places.

Still combing

"Our forces are still conducting combing and search operations, and as soon as they are finished, we will announce the liberation," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said in a note to journalists Thursday.

Sources close to SDF leadership told VOA that almost all of the area above ground had been cleared, but the U.S.-backed forces continue going through kilometers of tunnels – some large enough to accommodate vehicles – that run beneath the town.

Some officials said there were indications certain tunnels even might extend into neighboring Iraq.

Clearing operations in Baghuz began Wednesday, following an offensive that saw the SDF push the last IS holdouts to the outskirts of the town, by the Euphrates River.

"A group of Daesh in Baghuz still fight back and hold their families as human shields," Zana Amedi, a media official with the YPG militia, told VOA at the time, using the terror group's Arabic acronym.

So far there has been no word on the fate of those IS fighters, or the civilians that were with them.

"We don't know how many more women and children, if any, are still in Baghuz," Wendy Taeuber, the International Rescue Committee's Iraq and northeast Syria country director, said in a statement Thursday. "However, while fighting continues, everything must be done to ensure that they are kept out of the line of fire."

In the meantime, SDF officials felt compelled to take to social media Thursday to push back against reports victory had been declared.

Excitement, though, has been growing in part of liberated Baghuz, where U.S.-backed troops have broken into song and dance, even before the Nowruz celebrations.

"Our feeling – the comrades' feeling – about the liberation of the region of Baghuz is a good one," Obeid Mohamed el-Hussein, an SDF fighter, told the French news agency AFP on Wednesday. "The comrades are happy."

Anticipation also has been building in Washington, where President Donald Trump on Wednesday promised the IS caliphate would be eradicated by day's end.

"There is no red," Trump speaking to reporters just hours after an intelligence briefing, showing off a map that compared IS-held territory now and the day he was elected.

"In fact, there's actually a tiny spot, which will be gone by tonight," he added.

But like top SDF officials, top U.S. defense officials have been wary of declaring victory too soon, cognizant of numerous predictions over the past several months that proved to be premature.

"We will continue fighting with our partners and allies, hunting ISIS wherever they may be," Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers told reporters Thursday, using an acronym for the terror group.

"The amount of territory they've held is smaller and smaller and smaller," he added.

Thousands surrender, succumb

Thousands of SDF troops have massed around Baghuz for weeks, laying siege to the town in an effort to liberate the final IS enclave in Syria. Officials said Kurdish special forces from Iraq also had been brought in to help with the operations.

Since then, SDF officials say, more than 5,000 IS fighters have surrendered or been captured, while another 1,300 have been killed.

In all, upward of 30,000 civilians, mostly family members of IS fighters, have fled Baghuz since the offensive began, 5,000 in just the past week.

Even once an official announcement is made, U.S. defense officials caution that IS still has "tens of thousands" of fighters working either as part of sleeper cells or as part of an active, clandestine insurgency.

Additionally, senior officials believe most of the group's senior leadership, including its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large.

VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report. Information from Reuters also was used in this report.

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