Islamic State fighters may have escaped to Iraq, despite US promise to stop them

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 6:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 10:03pm

An Islamic State convoy stranded in the Syrian Desert for five days has split up and some fighters may have found their way into Iraq, despite the US military’s determination to stop them from reaching militant-controlled territory, according to reports from Syrian activists, Iraqi officials and the US military on Sunday.

Conflicting reports and claims put the 17 buses that made up the original convoy in a variety of locations, illustrating the difficulty of establishing with any certainty events in the remote desert war zone spanning Iraq and Syria.

The buses set out in a convoy from western Syria on Tuesday under the terms of a deal brokered by Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement to relocate the fighters to the Islamic State-controlled town of Bukamal on the Iraqi border, in return for the bodies of Lebanese army, Hezbollah and Iranian soldiers.

The convoy has since become the centre of a region-wide controversy over whether such deals are acceptable, with the US trading accusations with Hezbollah and its allies over who is doing more to fight terrorism.

Iraq’s government expressed outrage at the relocation, which would have enabled the 300 Islamic State fighters in the convoy to reinforce militant positions in Iraq. The US military vowed to prevent them from doing so and on Wednesday blocked the convoy’s path, by bombing the desert road ahead of it.

At least some of the buses have become stranded in the desert between Syrian government and Islamic State lines, with US warplanes circling overhead to deter any further attempts to reach Islamic State territory.

On Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry slammed the US military’s surveillance of the buses as “illogical” and said the lives of pregnant women are at risk, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

On Sunday, the US military said six of the buses had crossed back into government-held territory and headed towards the Syrian-government-controlled town of Palmyra, leaving 11 buses stuck in the desert. The whereabouts of the six buses that headed to Palmyra were not clear.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, said four of the buses reached territory controlled by Islamic State, in fulfilment of the Hezbollah deal, and that six were stuck in the desert. It did not say what happened to the other seven buses.

According to Syrians in the area and Iraqi officials, however, all or most of the original fighters who set out on the convoy got off the buses and made their way to Iraq, using back roads to bypass the path bombed by US warplanes.

Omar Abu Layla, who heads an activist network called Deir al-Zour 24, said the fighters travelled on foot to meet Islamic State fighters nearby and have been transported to two western Iraqi towns, Rawa and Aana. He cited the accounts of two reporters in his network who live in the area.

Two Iraqi officials said they believed all of the fighters and their families had arrived in Rawa in recent days. Residents told Mohammed Karbouli, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary committee on defence and security, that hundreds of Islamic State fighters from Syria showed up in Rawa on Friday and that they were apparently those from the convoy.

“That deal was a big mistake, and it harms only Iraq,” he said.

Asmaa al-Ani, a member of the local council in Anbar province, said residents of Rawa told her that about 700 Islamic State fighters and their families had arrived and had taken up residence in empty homes. “These reinforcements will have a negative impact on the military situation for the coming operations,” she said, referring to the Iraqi army’s plans to recapture the area, one of the last remaining pockets in Iraq controlled by Islamic State.

The claims left it unclear who, if anyone, may still be on the buses stranded in the desert. Hezbollah has accused the US military of endangering the lives of women and children who are on the buses, but the US military says it will not prevent supplies from reaching the vehicles.

The US military did not respond to requests for comment on whether Islamic State fighters are in Iraq.