BEIRUT — Buses carrying hundreds of Islamic State militants and their families arrived in eastern Syria on Tuesday following a negotiated evacuation from the Lebanon-Syria border, where the U.S.-backed Lebanese army deployed for the first time in years.
The evacuation agreement, the first such publicized deal concluded with the extremist group, angered many Iraqis, who accused Syria and Hezbollah of dumping the militants on the Iraqi border rather than eradicating them.
Some 600 militants were allowed to leave as part of a deal, negotiated by Hezbollah, in exchange for identifying the location of the remains of Lebanese soldiers captured by ISIS in 2014 and later killed. The deal also provoked controversy in Lebanon, as some have voiced opposition to negotiations with the militants.
“Any deals or understandings between the warring parties inside Syria or in the region must take into consideration the security of Iraq and not to lead to anything that poses any threat to our national security,” the Iraqi government spokesman, Saad al-Hadithi, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Al-Hadithi said the Iraqi government “will firmly face any threat to Iraqi territories.”
Shiite-majority Iraq has been largely supportive of Syria and the Iran-backed Hezbollah in their battle against ISIS, a Sunni extremist group and shared enemy, but many Iraqis expressed anger on social media.
“Who’s going to pay for the delivery sent by Hassan Nasrallah to us?” wrote well-known writer Saleh al-Hamdani on his Facebook page, referring to Hezbollah’s leader. “Will (state-sanctioned militias) or the Federal Police or Counter Terrorism Forces pay for it?”
Baghdad-based analyst Hisham al-Hashimi wrote on Facebook that Iraq’s “selfish ally preferred to throw Daesh danger from Lebanon to Iraq, while Iraqis demolished the second-largest city (Mosul) in order not to enable Daesh militants to flee (to Syria) and damage the neighbor.”
Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The Lebanese government and Hezbollah have both defended the deal that allowed ISIS safe passage to the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, an ISIS stronghold, saying it was the only way Lebanon could uncover the fate of its captured soldiers and recover their remains.
But many in Lebanon were opposed to the deal, which they said allowed the killers of Lebanese soldiers to get off scot-free.
“Shame on a nation whose soldiers return in coffins, while the criminals leave in air-conditioned buses,” many posted on social media.
The departure of ISIS marked the end of a militant presence along the Syrian-Lebanese border dating back to the early days of the Syrian uprising. The Lebanese army was able to assume full control of the border.
Syrian state-run news agency SANA said the buses carrying the militants arrived Tuesday to a handover point in the town of Hamimiyah in the eastern Deir el-Zour province. They are expected to continue from there to the town of Boukamal, near the Iraqi border.
Salaheddin reported from Baghdad. AP writer Sarah El-Deeb in Beirut contributed reporting.