US-backed forces claim victory over Islamic State, declare caliphate defeated

U.S.-backed forces declared victory over the Islamic State on Saturday after retaking the last village held by the terrorist group in Syria, marking an end to the militants' years-long hold on large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The Associated Press reported early Saturday that a 1.5-square-mile tent camp controlled by militants in the country's eastern village of Baghouz was bombed heavily, leaving only a field of abandoned trenches and craters filled with scorched remnants of the tents.

“Baghouz is free and the military victory against Daesh has been achieved,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), tweeted, referring to the group by its Arabic acronym.

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The SDF hoisted its yellow flag atop a building in Baghouz on Saturday, declaring the "total elimination" of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.

A spokesperson for the American-backed force that led the operation called the victory a "big moment" but cautioned again declaring certain victory over ISIS. 

“This is a big moment not just for us but for all of the world,” said Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the SDF, according to The New York Times. “But we cannot say that ISIS is finished. It is true that they are finished on the ground as a standing army. But the ISIS threat remains around the globe.”

The White House, in a statement later Saturday, declared that the U.S., along with the Iraqi Security Forces and SDF had liberated "all ISIS-controlled territory" in Syria and Iraq.

"To all of the young people on the internet believing in ISIS’s Propaganda, you will be dead if you join. Think instead about having a great life," President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE said in a statement. 

"While on occasion these cowards will resurface, they have lost all prestige and power. They are losers and will always be losers," he added.

According to the AP, the Islamic State maintains affiliates in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan and other countries.

The announcement comes one day after the White House declared the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had lost all of its territory in Syria.

“The territorial caliphate has been eliminated in Syria,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday.

Sanders showed reporters a map of Syria depicting ISIS's territorial losses, a copy of which Trump later handed to reporters.

“You guys can have the map. Congratulations. Just spread it around,” Trump told reporters Friday on the tarmac in West Palm Beach, Fla. “There’s ISIS, and that’s what we have right now,” he added, pointing to an area without any red ISIS-held territory.

The long-awaited announcement marks an achievement for the Trump administration in the years-long fight against the militant group, but U.S. officials and lawmakers have cautioned that ISIS continues to pose a threat.

At its height four years ago, ISIS controlled a swath of territory across Syria and Iraq that was the size of Britain. The extremist group still maintains a following in Syria and Iraq, though the whereabouts of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are unknown, according to the AP.

The outlet reported that the victory over the last Islamic State stronghold in Baghouz marks the end of a weeks-long final battle that saw hundreds killed and thousands of others flee the territory.

The U.S. and allied forces have worked to take back the territory since 2014, unleashing more than 100,000 bombs and leading to the deaths of an unknown number of civilians and fighters.

Updated 2:10 p.m.