Iraqi forces in Ramadi within sight of major victory
BAGHDAD // Iraqi troops have pushed deeper into the heart of the last remaining district held by ISIL in the city of Ramadi, despite being slowed by bombs and booby traps.
Recapturing Ramadi, which fell to the militants in May, would be one of the most important victories achieved by Iraq’s armed forces since ISIL swept across a third of the country in 2014.
Soldiers advanced overnight in the Hoz neighborhood that houses the provincial government compound, the target of an attack that started on Tuesday, joint operations command spokesman Brigadier Yahya Rasool said on Saturday.
“The counter-terrorism forces are within 800 metres from the government complex”, advancing by about 1 km in the past day, Brig Rasool said.
“Air strikes helped detonate explosive devices and booby-trapped houses, facilitating our advance.”
Special operation commander Sami Al Aridhi said the plan was “to liberate all of Ramadi from three sides”.
“Our troops are now advancing towards their targets but were delayed because the criminals have booby-trapped everything,” he said.
Brig Rasool said most civilians still in the ISIL-held central district had taken shelter in the city’s hospital, knowing that the army would not target it.
He declined to give a time frame for the final onslaught to dislodge the militants.
“The campaign’s priority is to avoid casualties among civilians and the troops, no matter how long it takes,” he said.
Military officials said on Wednesday that the offensive to retake the central district should take several days.
The latest fighting around the government complex left at least two members of the Iraqi security forces dead and nine wounded, according to Ahmed Al Dulaimi, a police captain.
At least three were killed on Friday, according to several senior officers and local officials.
The figures they provided for ISIL casualties are high, with at least 23 killed on Friday alone.
The number of militants in central Ramadi was estimated at the start of the operation five days ago at no more than 400.
The Iraqi government forces are backed by air support from an international coalition led by the United States. Shiite militia units backed by Iran, which have played a major part in other government offensives, have been kept away from the battlefield in Ramadi to avoid angering Sunni residents.
The city, which lies in the fertile Euphrates River valley just two hours’ drive west of Baghdad, is the capital of mainly Sunni Anbar province. The government said it would be handed over to the local police and to a Sunni tribal force once it was secured.
Ramadi was ISIL’s biggest prize of 2015, abandoned by government forces in May in a major setback for Baghdad and for the Iraqi military that has been trained by the United States following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
After Ramadi, the army plans to move to retake the northern city of Mosul, the biggest population centre under ISIL control in Iraq and Syria.
Dislodging the militants from Mosul, which had a pre-war population close to 2 million, would effectively abolish their state structure in Iraq and deprive them of a major source of funding, which comes partly from oil and partly from fees and taxes on residents.
“The liberation of dear Mosul will be achieved with the cooperation and unity of all Iraqis after the victory in Ramadi,” prime minister Haider Al Abadi said on Friday.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Published: December 26, 2015 04:00 AM