A bus carries ISIS militants and their families from the Lebanon-Syria border towards Deir ez-Zor on Monday. Photo: Louai Beshara | AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Iraqi intelligence officials say they are monitoring a convoy of ISIS militants moving through Syria towards the Al Bukamal border crossing and Baghdad believes there are more militants than initial estimates.
A special operation center has been set up to monitor the movement of these ISIS militants transferred to Al Bukamal, Abu Ali Basri, the general manager of intelligence and counter-terrorism within Iraq’s Interior Ministry, has told Iraqi Al Sabah newspaper.
The Syrian army and Hezbollah in Lebanon agreed to a deal over the weekend that allowed an ISIS convoy to relocate from their enclave on the Lebanon-Syria border to the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor.
Deir ez-Zor, located in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, has a concentration of ISIS fighters who were pushed out of northern Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
The Iraqi government worries that the proximity of the river valley to the border crossing, known as Al-Qaim in Iraq, could allow ISIS militants to cross back into Iraq after its forces have largely driven the extremists out of northwestern Iraq, recently the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and Tal Afar, which ISIS used to shuttle fighters between the two countries.
Basri added in the statement that presence of these militants is dangerous and the number of the transferred militants was larger than what was initially reported — without specifying or estimating the number.
According to statements by Hezbollah in Lebanon earlier this week, the convoy carrying ISIS militants and their families is comprised of 17 buses and ambulances containing at least 25 wounded individuals.
The US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is “currently monitoring approximately 16 buses carrying a couple hundred fighters and their families,” the coalition’s media office told Rudaw on Thursday evening.
Basri explained that security forces have a plan to confront them and can protect Iraq from the militants.
The coalition conducted strikes on Wednesday that aimed to crater a road and make travel more difficult for the convoy.
The strikes took place on the road “heading east between Hamaymah and Al Bukamal,” the coalition detailed in a statement, stressing that they did not hit the convoy itself but cratered the road “to prevent the further transport of ISIS fighters to the border area of our Iraqi partners and struck individual vehicles and fighters that were clearly identified as ISIS.”
The ISIS vehicles that were struck were ones that had come to meet with convoy, said coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend on Thursday in his final briefing with Pentagon press.
“We struck every ISIS fighter or vehicle that tried to approach the convoy and we will continue to do that,” said Townsend, explaining that no women or children in the convoy have been harmed.
According to the UK-based conflict monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, following the coalition airstrikes, ISIS and Hezbollah are both looking for a new route for the convoy to reach the Deir ez-Zor area, a “safe passage” in order to complete the evacuation agreement.
Townsend confirmed that the buses have started moving back into the interior of Syria and the coalition is letting them go, but will prevent them from entering ISIS territory.
Security and Peshmerga officials in the Kurdistan Region have also said they are aware of the convoy and are concerned.