Iraqi troops advance in Ramadi, pockets of IS remain

December 29, 2015 2:43 am

 Iraqi security forces surround the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo / AP

Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led airstrikes drove Islamic State
militants out of the center of Ramadi on Monday and seized the main
government complex there, according to military officials, who said
insurgents are still dug into pockets of the city west of Baghdad.
Ramadi,
the provincial capital of the sprawling Anbar province, fell to IS in
May, marking a major setback for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led campaign.

Ramadi and nearby Fallujah, which is controlled by IS, saw
some of the heaviest fighting of the eight-year U.S. intervention in
.
In recent months Iraqi forces launched several offensives
to retake Ramadi, but all had stalled. Iraqi troops began advancing into
some parts of the city, located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of
Baghdad, earlier this month.
But their progress was slowed by
snipers, booby traps and the militants’ destruction of bridges leading
into the city center.mili
The heavy fighting and limited access
to front-lines made it difficult to follow the troops’ progress, and
Iraqi officials issued a string of sometimes contradictory statements.
Brig.
Gen. Ahmed al-Belawi told The Associated Press that IS militants
stopped firing from inside the government complex at around 8 a.m.
Monday and said troops were encircling it as engineering teams cleared
booby traps.

Iraqi security forces enter the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo / AP
Iraqi security forces enter the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo / AP
A few hours later, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya
Rasool announced in a televised statement that Ramadi had been “fully
liberated.”
But Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, head of military
operations in Anbar, quickly clarified that Iraqi forces had only
retaken the government complex and that parts of the city remained under
IS control.
He said IS fighters still control 30 percent of
Ramadi and that government forces do not fully control many districts
from which IS fighters have retreated.
“The troops only entered
the government complex,” al-Mahlawi told The Associated Press. “We can’t
say that Ramadi is fully liberated. There are still neighborhoods under
their control and there are still pockets of resistance.”
Iraqi
state TV showed troops, some waving Iraqi flags and others brandishing
machine guns, chanting and dancing inside what it described as the
government complex. Soldiers could be seen slaughtering sheep in
celebration near heavily damaged buildings.

Iraqi security forces search a building in the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo / AP
Iraqi security forces search a building in the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo / AP
Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told AP that “today’s success is a proud moment for Iraq.”
“The
clearance of the government center is a significant accomplishment and
is the result of many months of hard work by the Iraqi army, the
counterterrorism service, the Iraqi air force, local and federal police,
and tribal fighters,” Warren said.
He said the U.S.-led
coalition has carried out more than 630 airstrikes, in addition to
training security forces and providing both advice and equipment to
clear bombs and booby traps.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head
of the U.S. Central Command, congratulated Iraqi forces on the
“important operational achievement.”
“Coupled with other recent
ISIL losses across Iraq and Syria… the seizure of the Government
Center clearly demonstrates that the enemy is losing momentum as they
steadily cede territory,” he said in a statement, using an acronym for
the IS group.
An Iraqi military officer told the AP that the militants had retreated from the government complex to other parts of the city.
“We
were totally surprised today,” the officer said, speaking on condition
of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press.

Iraqi military forces retook a strategic government complex in the city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants. Photo / AP
Iraqi military forces retook a strategic government complex in the city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants. Photo / AP
“We didn’t expect them to retreat from a number of Ramadi
areas today, where we entered without any resistance, as if they
evaporated,” he said.
Al-Belawi said the fighters retreated
mainly to the eastern neighborhoods of Sijariya and Sufiya. Authorities
did not provide casualty figures from the fighting.
The recapture
of the government complex should lift the morale of Iraqi forces, who
were badly shaken by the fall of the city in May, which came despite
months of U.S.-led airstrikes and advances against IS elsewhere in the
country.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi delivered a
speech in which he hailed the advance, saying it had killed “hundreds”
of militants and “fulfilled the promise to defeat Daesh in Ramadi,”
referring to the IS group by its Arabic acronym.
He said 2016 would be “the year of the final victory and the end of the existence of Daesh on Iraqi territory.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Iraqi forces for “displaying tremendous perseverance and courage.”
“While
Ramadi is not yet fully secure and additional parts of the city still
must be retaken, Iraq’s national flag now flies above the provincial
government center and enemy forces have suffered a major defeat,” he
said in a statement.

Iraqi soldiers hold national flags in the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo / AP
Iraqi soldiers hold national flags in the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo / AP

The IS group still controls much of northern and western Iraq, as
well as vast swaths of neighboring Syria. It has declared a caliphate
in the areas under its control and imposed a harsh and violent
interpretation of Islamic law.
Ramadi and Fallujah, Sunni Arab
cities where distrust of the Shiite-led government runs deep, were major
bastions of the insurgency in the years after the 2003 U.S.-led
invasion.
The capture of Ramadi would be a major victory for
Iraqi troops, but would also test the government’s ability to bridge the
country’s sectarian divide.

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