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Netanyahu, Gantz congratulate US on raid that killed IS chief Baghdadi

PM hails death of jihadist leader as ‘an important milestone’ but warns ‘the battle is still ahead of us’; FM Katz says it sends message ‘terror can be defeated’

US President Donald Trump (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Oval Office of the White House, March 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Oval Office of the White House, March 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Israeli officials on Sunday praised US President Donald Trump on the American special forces raid in Syria that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it an “important milestone” in the fight against terrorism.

Trump confirmed earlier that the elusive leader was killed, saying he died “like a dog” in a daring nighttime raid by US special forces deep in northwest Syria.

In a televised address from the White House, he said that US forces killed a “large number” of Islamic State fighters during the raid, which culminated in cornering Baghdadi in a tunnel where he set off a suicide vest.

“I wish to congratulate President Trump on the impressive accomplishment that led to the elimination of the head of Daesh, al-Baghdadi,” Netanyahu said an hour later in a video statement while touring the Palmachim air force base, using the Arabic initials for IS.

“This reflects the shared determination of Israel, the US and all the free countries to fight terrorist organizations and terrorist states,” he added. “This accomplishment is an important milestone, but the battle is still ahead of us.”

This image made from video posted on a militant website on April 29, 2019, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, being interviewed by his group’s Al-Furqan media outlet. (Al-Furqan media via AP)

Benny Gantz, who is currently tasked with trying to cobble together a coalition after Netanyahu failed to do so, also issued a statement praising the operation and the US president.

“The fight against terror requires a mix of responsibility, patience and determination to act,” Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, said in a statement. “The elimination of the Daesh leader in Syria is a combination off all three.

“This is an important operational and intelligence accomplishment of the United States military forces, led by President Trump,” he added.

“Al-Baghdadi is directly responsible for the cruel deaths of hundreds of thousands of people whose only crime was that they didn’t share his same extremist ideology,” he said.

Retired Israeli General Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White political alliance, after paying his respects in front of the coffin of former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Gantz warned, however, that Baghdadi’s death did not mean military forces battling terrorism could pack up and go home.

“The fight against terror is not a fight against one man, it is long and uncompromising, but every targeted killing sends a deterring message to the entire leadership of the organization and its members — the long arm of those who fight terror reaches everywhere,” he said.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz issued a similar statement, congratulating Trump and US forces and and calling it “a very important psychological and practical achievement… and an important message to the free world that with determined war, terror can be defeated.”

Other international reactions also started pouring in.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the operation as “an important moment in our fight against terror” but said that “the battle against the evil of Daesh is not yet over.”

“We will work with our coalition partners to bring an end to the murderous, barbaric activities of Daesh once and for all,” he wrote on Twitter.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the Islamic State group’s leaders “have twisted Islam to groom thousands of people into joining their evil cause. I welcome the action that has been taken. The world will not miss Al-Baghdadi.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street, on his way to parliament in London, October 24, 2019. (Hollie Adams/PA via AP)

Trump said in his announcement that Baghdadi “died after running into a dead end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” adding that three of Baghdadi’s children also died in the blast.

Trump said that the raid — which required flying more than an hour by helicopter each way from an undisclosed base — had been accomplished with help from Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Iraq later said it had provided Baghdadi’s location to the US.

At its height, Islamic State controlled swaths of Iraq and Syria in a self-declared state known as a caliphate, characterized by the brutal imposition of a puritanical version of Islam.

In addition to oppressing the people it governed, Islamic State planned or inspired terrorist attacks across Europe, while using expertise in social media to lure large numbers of foreign volunteers.

It took years of war, in which Islamic State became notorious for mass executions and sickening hostage murders, before the group’s final slice of territory in Syria was seized this March.

Illustrative photo of a member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces removing an Islamic State flag in the town of Tabqa. (AFP Photo/Delil Souleiman)

Long pursued by the US-led coalition against IS, Baghdadi has been erroneously reported dead several times in recent years.

Baghdadi — an Iraqi native believed to be around 48 years old — was rarely seen.

After 2014 he disappeared from sight, only surfacing in a video in April with a wiry gray and red beard and 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 — despite its March defeat — has spread from the Middle East to 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.

In September, the group released an audio message said to be from Baghdadi praising the operations of IS affiliates in other regions.

It also called on scattered IS fighters to regroup and try to free thousands of their comrades held in jails and camps by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.

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