BAGHDAD — A mixture of U.S. coalition and Iraqi aircraft have targeted two large masses of Islamic State vehicles as they escaped from the outskirts of Fallujah, destroying more than 150 vehicles and killing militants, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defense posted footage online Wednesday showing what appears to be at least one Mi-28 Havoc gunship firing unguided rockets and its cannon into a mass of vehicles south of Fallujah. Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul said the convoy was nearly seven miles long and made up of vehicles containing Islamic State leaders and their families – raising concerns that women and children may be among the dead.
According to a statement from the Iraqi military 798 vehicles were destroyed in total. The coalition was responsible for the destruction of 117 of them, including three car bombs, the statement said. Overall, eight car bombs were eliminated during the strikes.
He said the strikes were carried out by the Iraqi air force, though a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq said U.S. aircraft participated, as well. Coalition aircraft avoided a part of the convoy it was thought could contain civilians, said U.S. military spokesman Col. Chris Garver.
After two and a half years under Islamic State control, Iraqi forces recaptured the city of Fallujah this week following a month-long offensive. While the city is largely free of the militants, Iraqi security forces are still carrying out operations on the outskirts of the city, where some Islamic State fighters are believed to have retreated.
The vehicles were fleeing from the Hussay area northwest of Fallujah, toward the Syrian border when the first strikes took place late Tuesday night, Rasoul said.
In an email, Garver said Iraqi security forces first engaged the convoy on the ground before a mixture of aircraft started their attack runs. U.S. airstrikes destroyed more than 55 Islamic State vehicles, Garver said, while Iraqi forces destroyed more.
The second collection of airstrikes hit a cluster of Islamic State vehicles in the Albu Bali neighborhood — a suburb almost squarely between Ramadi and Fallujah. Garver said U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes destroyed upward of 120 Islamic State vehicles.
Sheikh Faisal Al-Issawi, a commander of Sunni tribal fighters in the area, said the convoy contacted his men via walkie-talkie as it approached their lines.
“They said that they didn’t come to fight,” he said. “They said that they just came to pass through towards the desert and asked us not to resist.”
He said his men attacked the convoy anyway, and lost five fighters in the ensuing fight.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defense said on its YouTube page that “hundreds” of Islamic State fighters had been killed, and media reports indicate the body count to be around 250. U.S. officials, however, would not comment on the number of dead and could not immediately determine whether there were civilian casualties. Despite saying that families had fled, Rasoul later said no women had been killed.
It is unclear why the Islamic State, now well aware of U.S. surveillance capabilities after two years of constant airstrikes, would mass in such a way that would allow for catastrophic aerial attacks.
“We are still trying to determine Da’esh’s motives,” Garver said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “What I can say is that we know that Da’esh is well aware of what happens when it assembles into large convoys in the open – Coalition and Iraqi air forces are able to strike them to great effect.”
Eissa al-Issawi, the mayor of Fallujah, said that he had received information that Islamic State militants would try to escape the Fallujah area and had notified the military.
They were fighters who had fled Fallujah and its surroundings and gathered in Hussay, he said.
He said that such a large convoy would not have attempted to escape without assurances and that only tribal fighters, not the army, had fought them as the fled.
“They wouldn’t take such a risk unless they had a deal with some side,” he said. “Why would they drive more than 500 cars in an exposed agricultural area?”
In the past, Iraqi forces have left open escape routes for militants fighting in urban areas to flee into the desert.
Rasoul said it was “nonsense” that any deal had been made for the convoy to escape.
Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mohammadi, an army commander for western Anbar, said his forces ambushed part of the convoy when it reached his sector after receiving notification of its movement from the U.S.-led coalition.
Iraqi security forces fly a fleet of Russian helicopter gunships that include the Mi-28 and the vaunted Mi-24 Hind. Both are armed with heavy cannons and complements of rockets and missiles.
In a statement Rasoul said single-engine turboprop Cessna Caravan planes were also involved in the attack. The Iraqi military often arms them with Hellfire missiles.
The scenes of destruction posted on social media show burned-out vehicles and corpses littering the desert. While some of the images could not be immediately verified, they are reminiscent of Iraq’s “Highway of Death” during the Gulf War.
In 1991, after boxing in a massive convoy of Iraqi soldiers and equipment on a strip of Iraq’s Highway 80 between Basra and the Kuwaiti border, U.S. warplanes proceeded to rake the military traffic jam for almost half a day, killing hundreds and destroying thousands of vehicles. While the strikes were initially thought to have killed large numbers of soldiers, the actual figure — reported by media outlets in the following days — turned out to be lower than expected as many soldiers abandoned their vehicles and fled into the desert. No doubt, the Islamic State attempted the same after being targeted by U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes in recent days.
Aid workers with a humanitarian agency called Preemptive Love were caught up in the chaos while attempting to deliver food supplies to camps for the displaced in the vicinity of Fallujah.
Their trucks got stuck on the desert road, stranding them overnight on Tuesday as the convoy made its way out of Fallujah. Its aid workers heard gunfire and airstrikes before counting 80 vehicles containing fighters and small arms passing them on the road, the group said.
Since the incident, access between Baghdad and the western province of Anbar has been even more restrictive than usual, meaning aid agencies are unable to deliver humanitarian supplies for the tens of thousands who have fled Fallujah and are now stranded in desert camps.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Washington. Loveday Morris contributed reporting from Baghdad.