Army busts into central Ramadi: thousands take on 300 jihadists

AFP — Dec 23, 2015

Iraqi soldiers fly the national flag over a government building in central Ramadi on Dec 21, 2015. Click to enlarge

Iraqi soldiers fly the national flag over a government building in central Ramadi on Dec 21, 2015. Click to enlarge

Iraqi security forces have advanced into the centre of Ramadi for a final push aimed at retaking the city they lost to Islamic State in May.

“We went into the centre of Ramadi from several fronts and we began purging residential areas,” said Sabah al-Noman, spokesman of the elite Iraqi counter-terrorism service, yesterday. “The city will be cleared in the coming 72 hours. We did not face strong resistance, only snipers and suicide bombers, and this is a tactic we expected.”

The fresh push was launched on Monday night and aims to result in the full recapture of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, in western Iraq.

Television footage late on Tuesday showed soldiers driving down the deserted streets of the bombed-out city, entering homes with caution to detect possible booby traps and retrieving shells and rockets from abandoned Islamic State positions.

The fighting in Ramadi is led by the elite counter-terrorism force, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes and supported by the police, army and Sunni tribes opposed to the jihadists.

Islamic State has lost several key towns in Iraq since Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north started fighting back following ISIS’s devastating offensive 18 months ago.

The Shia-dominated Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces were heavily involved in battles that led to the recapture of towns such as Tikrit and Baiji, but they have remained on the fringes in the battle for the Sunni city of Ramadi.

Retaking the city, an insurgent bastion that saw some of the deadliest fighting against US troops a decade ago, would be the Iraqi forces’ most significant victory so far. “We built temporary bridges on the Euphrates and our forces were able to cross the river to enter residential areas and gain access to the city centre,” a brigadier said.

Islamic State fighters have had plenty of time to dig in since they took full control of Ramadi on May 17 after blitzing government forces with wave after wave of car and truck bomb attacks. The jihadists built tunnels to move without being exposed to the coalition’s daily raids, but their supply lines have been gradually severed and it was estimated last week there were no more than 300 fighters left in the city.

The breakthrough came earlier this month when forces broke down Islamic State defences and retook the key southwestern neighbourhood of Al-Tameem. After beefing up their new positions, Iraqi commanders had said a final push was imminent and leaflets urging the population to flee were dropped over the weekend.

“The distance between our forces and the governmental compound, which is located in the central district of Hoz, is” 500m, said the brigadier. The provincial headquarters is believed to be one of the main ISIS bases in the city.

According to another military official, 15 families, mostly children, women and elderly men, had managed to escape from Hoz in the past 24 hours.

Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi and other officials said in recent days they believed there were still a few civilians in Ramadi being used as human shields by Islamic State.

The coalition said its aircraft had been carrying out six strikes a day on Islamic State targets in the Ramadi area for the past month.

“The fall of Ramadi is inevitable, the end is coming but … it’s gonna be a tough fight,” coalition spokesman Steve Warren told US reporters in a videoconference from Baghdad.

He also said there were at least thousands of civilians left inside Ramadi, “possibly tens of thousands”.

A victory in Ramadi would leave Mosul, Tal Afar and Fallujah as the only major Iraqi cities still in Islamic State hands and further undermine the group’s claim that the caliphate it proclaimed last year was expanding.

Mr Obeidi has said successive operations have shrunk the area controlled by Islamic State from nearly 40 per cent of Iraq last year to 17 per cent.

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