Sunday, July 17, 2016

Islamic State’s Highway of Death In Iraq’s Anbar


At the end of June 2016 just as the battle for Fallujah had concluded a huge group of Islamic State fighters and their families tried to make a break out. Over 700 vehicles might have taken part. This was quickly discovered by the Iraqis and U.S.-led Coalition, which set about destroying it over two days. That was about all that was agreed upon as the Iraqis and Americans gave different accounts of what happened and who was responsible.

The initial reports of the attack upon the Islamic State convoy in Anbar were a bit confused and excluded any involvement of the U.S.-led Coalition. On June 29, the head of Iraqi army aviation General Hamid al-Maliki claimed that IS tried to attack Amiriya Fallujah, which is south of Fallujah, with over 700 vehicles. He claimed the Iraqi forces attacked the convoy destroying around 130 of them. The Defense Ministry also posted video of its helicopters attacking the column. Kataib Hezbollah and the head of the Badr list in parliament said that the Hashd also took part in the attack destroying more than 100 vehicles. The Badr parliamentarian said the IS column was heading from Amiriya Fallujah either west to the Syrian border area or south towards Saudi Arabia. Here there were several problems. First, the column was not an attack. Second, depending upon the account you had vehicles heading north or south. Later, it would be revealed that three separate groups were attacked, but that would not come out until later. Finally, only the Hashd claimed it was involved. It does not appear in any other reporting.

On June 30 Iraqi officials tried to clarify the issue, but there was still contradictory information given. The Defense Ministry said around 260 IS vehicles were hit, Gen. Maliki upped that 426, Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi had 688, while another Iraqi military source claimed there were 798. A spokesman for the Defense Ministry General Yahya Rasoul and General Maliki said that only Iraqi forces were involved, and that the attacks started on the night of June 28 in the Hasai area northwest of Fallujah. The head of the security committee in Amiriya Fallujah Rashid al-Rasheed told the press that Sahwa units in the area ran into the vehicles and engaged them as well. Sheikh Faisal al-Issawi added that IS contacted his men and asked for safe passage through their lines saying they would not fight, but Issawi’s Sahwa attacked them anyway. The Iraqis informed the U.S. coalition about the situation, but it did not want to be involved because they were afraid there were civilians with the insurgents. Rasheed accused the U.S. of making a deal with the militants to allow them through the lines. The Mayor of Fallujah Eissa Issawi gave a different explanation speculating that IS had made a deal with the Iraqi forces for safe passage. Again, you have vehicles going in different directions because there were actually two groups of them. Now the Sawha were claiming they were involved with no mention of the Hashd. Finally, the inflation of numbers destroyed was another example of Iraqi propaganda, which often exaggerates its prowess.

The Americans offered a third version of events. The Coalition claimed that it struck two separate IS columns on June 28 and 29. It first received news of an IS convoy on June 27, and sent out a drone, which found it. Coalition spokesman Colonel Chris Garver let it be known that the U.S. avoided hitting the convoy because it was afraid that it contained civilians. It didn’t want them to escape however so heavy bombers, perhaps B-52s were called on June 28 in order to crater the road IS was travelling on to stop them. On June 29 40 vehicles broke away from the main group and headed south, which Coalition forces engaged and destroyed after it was determined that they were all military targets. The main column was found again in the afternoon and hit by the Coalition as well. Garver added that the Iraqi ground forces attacked the convoy perhaps alluding to the Hashd or Sahwa stories. Another convoy of 120 vehicles was then discovered in Albu Bali between Ramadi and Fallujah. Initially this was called a second “southern” column. Iraqi artillery began the initial assault, and then Coalition aircraft blew up the lead vehicle stopping it for over an hour When it got started again, the Coalition stopped it a second time by destroying the first in line. Around 50 people including women and children were seen fleeing the column, temporarily halting the air raids. After about an hour the Coalition and Iraqis wiped out the empty vehicles. Like the Iraqis, the Coalition posted video of its participation. It was later revealed that Americans pulled planes from supporting an attack by the new Syrian Army upon the Islamic State in Bukumal, Syria to strike the Anbar. The U.S. account had problems as well as it claimed most of the success with only mentioning the Iraqis at the very end. In fact they destroyed most of the first column, which the Americans refused to do over their concerns for civilian casualties.

On July 4, War Is Boring published an article by Arnaud Delalande who interviewed some of the Iraqi pilots that attacked the column. They added that Iraqi military intelligence noticed IS movement from Fallujah towards Amiriya Fallujah on the night of June 28. Iraqi army helicopters were sent out to find and track the vehicles, and reported that they found them around 10 pm. The Iraqis then told the U.S., but they did not want to take part because they believed there were civilians amongst the militants. That left Iraqi helicopters to begin the attack at 1:30 am on June 29, which took place in the Hasai area. Pilots said that they saw more than 400 vehicles spread out across the area and destroyed more than half of them. Iraqi intelligence then found a second column of around 30 vehicles leaving Fallujah in a northwest direction. This was the one found in Albu Bali The Iraqis sent out more helicopters, but they were told to vacate the areas as the U.S. and British aircraft swept it. Christiaan Triebert also wrote an article that mentioned that Iraqi helicopters flew into the Albu Bali area and took away civilian casualties who were either the victims of IS or the air strikes. Here you finally had Iraqi and Coalition aircraft all hitting IS at various times and in different locations clearing up the first reports that had the insurgents going south or north. Who the civilians were is yet unknown. Some said IS attacked a group of civilians. Another account said it was displaced. It could have been IS family members as well.

Three major problems arose from these accounts. First, the number of IS vehicles hit was all over the place from 176 initially stated by the Coalition to up to 798 claimed by the Iraqis. Second, Baghdad and Washington did not appear to be on the same page. Officially, Iraqis insisted that the U.S. and British were not involved in the destruction of the IS convoies. Third, how were so many vehicles able to gather together and move about at the end of a major Iraqi military operation? While some blamed the U.S., it was likely the Iraqi forces that made the deal since they were on the ground and have reportedly done the same in other cases to avoid further fighting. Whatever the case Fallujah was a disaster for the Islamic State and its flight into the desert and destruction topped off its defeat.

SOURCES

Associated Press, “Iraq Airstrikes Kill Islamic State Fighters Leaving Fallujah,” 6/30/16

Delalande, Arnaud, “Iraqis and Americans Butted Heads Over the ISIS ‘Convoy Massacre,’” War Is Boring, 7/4/16

Ellis, Ralph, Starr, Barbara and Alkhshali, Hamdi, “Airstrikes hit convoys carrying ISIS militants out of Falluja, U.S. officials say,” CNN, 7/1/16

Gibbons-Neff, Thomas and Lamothe, Dan, “Pentagon chief on pulling air support for U.S.-backed rebels: ‘We missed an opportunity,’” Washington Post, 7/8/16

Al Mada, “Daash attacked Amiriya Fallujah as 700 cars destroyed 130 by Army Aviation,” 6/29/16
- “Security alerted to the giant Daash convoy tried to withdraw from the area around Fallujah,” 6/30/16

Michaels, Jim, “Inside look at U.S.-led coalition’s deadliest single attack on ISIL,” USA Today, 7/12/16

NINA, “Qasim al-Araji: The Army and the Popular Crowd repulsed more than /200/ car traveling /Daash/ elements fleeing across the Nazim of al-Mejarra and the island,” 6/29/16

Rogoway, Tyler, “New “Highway Of Death” In Iraq As ISIS Convoy Gets Annihilated From The Air,” The Warzone, 7/1/16

Salim, Mustafa and Gibbons-Neff, Thomas, “Iraqi, U.S. aircraft bomb convoy of Islamic State fighters fleeing Fallujah with their families,” Washington Post, 6/30/16

Triebert, Chirstiaan, “An Open Source Analysis of the Fallujah “Convoy Massacre”(s),” bellingcat, 7/6/16

2 comments:

Jeff F said...

Have you seen anything on where convoys of this size could have orginated? I think either Bellingcat or War Is Boring was similarly wondering how an 11 km long convoy could leave Fallujah which is allegedly under blockad

Joel Wing said...

Hi Jeff,
It appears that the convoy originated in Fallujah. Iraqi military intelligence said they found a group of vehicles leaving the city on June 28. I think the real question isn't where it originated from, but how such a large column got out of Fallujah. Looks like they made a deal with some ISF units to flee, and then got spotted by other Iraqi forces that led to the airstrikes.