Iraqi and US-led coalition aircrafts decimated the Islamic State group’s forces fleeing the Fallujah area, destroying hundreds of vehicles and killing dozens of jihadists, officials said on Thursday.
Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad, was seized from the Islamic State by Iraqi forces on Sunday after more than two years under the group’s control.
The strikes that the Iraqi government said took place from Wednesday to Thursday compounded what was already a major defeat for the jihadists.
Airstrikes destroyed around 200 vehicles allegedly carrying ISIS fighters fleeing from one of their former strongholds. This was confirmed by a senior Iraqi official to NBC news on Thursday, 30th of June, although those figures of the casualties could not be independently confirmed.
“Over the last two days, the Iraqi security forces and the coalition conducted strikes against two large concentrations of [Islamic State] vehicles and fighters,” Pentagon spokesman 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.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) said the air force destroyed 96 vehicles and killed “a large group” of fighters from June 29th to 30th, while army aviation destroyed 507 and killed “dozens” over the same period.
While the JOC did not provide precise figures for the number of jihadists killed in Iraqi strikes, it said coalition bombing left 349 dead.
It was not clear how the dead were counted and identified.
The defence ministry released aerial footage showing dozens of vehicles being targeted, and JOC spokesman Yahya Rasool said commandos had also seized large quantities of weapons and ammunition.
The strikes targeted massive convoys of Islamic State vehicles including pickup trucks, minibuses and cars.
“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,” said Anbar Operations Command chief Staff Major General Ismail al-Mahalawi.
Tharthar is a lake north of the Euphrates surrounded by desert through which the Islamic State 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 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, after a vast operation that was launched in May.
After tough battles to breach the Islamic State 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 Islamic State fighters abandoned the Jolan neighbourhood and retreated to rural areas to the west.
The account of the air strikes provided by the JOC suggests Islamic State fighters had no choice but to attempt a suicidal convoy that they knew would leave them exposed to air strikes.
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 aircrafts, 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.
He further confirmed that all ISIS militants traveling in these vehicles were killed, but did not figures on the fatalities. “I heard the sounds of the explosions and I saw the light of burning vehicles ” Gen rasool said.
The JOC said the majority of the strikes were carried out by Iraqi aircrafts and that US-led coalition warplanes joined the operation later.
It was not immediately clear whether some Islamic State militants were able to survive the aerial onslaught and reach their strongholds near Syria.
The strikes appear to spell the end of fixed Islamic State 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 the Islamic State’s de facto Iraqi capital.
Although Reuters quoted an unidentified US official as saying a preliminary estimate suggested at least 250 suspected fighters had been killed, there would be more body counts, thus need for more body bags for ISIS fighters, as the coalition forces intend on continuing the assault and regaining control of Islamic State controlled regions.