Airstrikes decimate ISIS forces fleeing Fallujah

2016-06-30 21:04
A destroyed militant vehicle after airstrikes on ISIS fleeing the outskirts of Fallujah. (Iraq Counterterrorism Service via AP)

A destroyed militant vehicle after airstrikes on ISIS fleeing the outskirts of Fallujah. (Iraq Counterterrorism Service via AP)

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Baghdad - Iraqi and US-led coalition aircraft decimated the Islamic State group's forces fleeing the Fallujah area, destroying more than 200 vehicles and killing dozens of jihadists, officials said on Thursday.

Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad, was wrested from ISIS by Iraqi forces on Sunday after more than two years under the group's control.

The strikes - which began late on Tuesday and lasted through the following day - compounded what was already a major defeat for the jihadists.

The Pentagon estimated that coalition strikes destroyed about 175 ISIS vehicles, while Iraqi officers said a total of at least 260 were destroyed and 150 militants killed.

"Over the last two days, the Iraqi security forces and the coalition conducted strikes against two large concentrations of [ISIS] vehicles and fighters," Pentagon spokesperson Matthew Allen said.

Allen said the coalition destroyed an estimated 55 vehicles from a convoy that gathered in areas southwest of Fallujah and a further 120 in an area northwest of the city.

"We know the Iraqi security forces destroyed more," he said.

Yahya Rasool, the spokesperson for Iraq's Joint Operations Command, said that "our heroes in the military aviation destroyed more than 200 vehicles".

The ministry of defence released aerial footage showing dozens of vehicles being taken out, and Rasool said commandos had also seized large quantities of weapons and ammunition.

Two series of strikes

He said at least 150 ISIS militants were killed in the strikes, although it was not clear how the dead were counted and identified.

Rasool was referring to a first series of strikes on a massive convoy of several hundred vehicles heading south of Fallujah, apparently bound for areas ISIS still controls near the border with Syria to the west.

According to video footage released by the Iraqi government, the vehicles included pickup trucks, minibuses and cars.

At least another 60 ISIS vehicles were destroyed later by air strikes conducted by Iraqi and US-led coalition aircraft on a convoy heading northwest of Fallujah, Anbar Operations Command chief Ismail Mahalawi told AFP.

He could not provide an estimate for the number of ISIS fighters killed in those strikes.

"This is a desperate attempt on the part of the terrorists to flee to their areas in Al-Qaim near the Syrian border and Tharthar," Mahalawi said.

Tharthar is a lake north of the Euphrates surrounded by desert through which ISIS fighters still have lines to reach Mosul, the country's second city and their last remaining major Iraqi hub.

Iraqi forces retook full control of Fallujah, just 50km west of Baghdad, after a vast operation that was launched in May.

After tough battles to breach ISIS defences in south Fallujah, elite Iraqi forces conquered the rest of the city with relative ease.

They took full control of the city on Sunday after ISIS fighters abandoned the Jolan neighbourhood and retreated to rural areas to the west.

The account of the air strikes provided by the JOC suggests ISIS fighters had no choice but to attempt a suicidal convoy that they knew would leave them exposed to air strikes.

Massive convoy 

According to Rasool and other military sources, the first strikes broke up a massive initial convoy that stretched several kilometres. 

Some left their vehicles and hid in a spot which was subsequently struck by Iraqi aircraft, resulting in a very high death toll, he said.

Fragments of the convoy were able to move on and some more vehicles were destroyed in subsequent strikes.

"We achieved a great victory by killing dozens of militants and the leaders of this organisation who tried to flee after their defeat," Rasool said.

The JOC said that the majority of the strikes were carried out by Iraqi aircraft and that US-led coalition warplanes joined the operation later.

It was not immediately clear whether some ISIS militants were able to survive the aerial onslaught and reach their strongholds near Syria.

The strikes appear to spell the end of fixed ISIS positions in eastern Anbar province, further shrinking the "caliphate" the group proclaimed over large parts of Iraq and Syria two years ago.

After losing the provincial capital Ramadi, as well as the towns of Heet and Rutba, defeat in Fallujah means the jihadist footprint in their traditional stronghold of Anbar is limited to areas near the Syrian border.

Iraqi forces are now training their sights on Mosul and pressing simultaneous operations from the south and the east of Qayyarah, a town in the Tigris valley they want to use as a launchpad for a full-fledged offensive on ISIS's de facto Iraqi capital.

Read more on:    isis  |  iraq  |  us

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