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BAGHDAD, Dec 27, (Agencies): Iraq’s army said on Sunday it had defeated Islamic State fighters in a provincial capital west of Baghdad, the first major victory for the US-trained force since it collapsed in the face of an assault by the militants 18 months ago. Victory in Ramadi, capital of mainly Sunni-Muslim Anbar province in the Euphrates River valley west of the capital, deprives Islamic State militants of their biggest prize of 2015.
The fighters captured it in May after government troops fled in a defeat which prompted Washington to take a hard look at strategy against the militants. After encircling the city for weeks, the Iraqi military launched a campaign to retake it last week, and made a final push to seize the central administration complex on Sunday. “By controlling the complex this means that we have defeated them in Ramadi,” said Sabah al-Numani, a spokesman for the force leading the fight on the government side. “The next step is to clear pockets that could exist here or there in the city.” State television broadcast footage of troops, Humvee vehicles and tanks advancing through Ramadi streets amid piles of rubble and collapsed houses. Some districts appeared to have been completely destroyed by the advance. Television also showed nighttime celebrations in mainly Shi’ite cities south of Baghdad, for the victory in Anbar, with people dancing in the streets and waving Iraqi flags from cars. Officials did not give any immediate death tolls for the battle. The government says most civilian residents of the city were able to evacuate before it launched its assault.
Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS, ISIL or DAESH, swept through a third of Iraq in June 2014 and declared a “caliphate” to rule over all Muslims from territory in both Iraq and Syria, carrying out mass killings and imposing a draconian form of Islam. Since then, the battle against the group in both countries has drawn in most global and regional powers, often with competing allies on the ground in complex multi-sided civil wars.
A US-led coalition has been waging an air campaign against the fighters in both countries, but rebuilding the Iraqi army to the point that it was capable of recapturing and holding territory has been one of the biggest challenges. In previous battles, including the recapture of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s home city Tirkit in April, the Iraqi government relied on Iran-backed Shi’ite militias for ground fighting, with its own army in a supporting role. Ramadi was recaptured by the army itself, without relying on the militias, who were kept off the battlefield to avoid sectarian tensions with the mainly Sunni population. “The complex is under our complete control, there is no presence whatsoever of Daesh fighters in the complex,” Numani told Reuters.
The government said the next target after Ramadi will be the northern city of Mosul, by far the largest population center controlled by Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria. “The smooth victory in Ramadi should be happy news for the residents of Mosul,” Numani said. US officials had hoped Baghdad would launch an assault on Mosul during 2015, but this was put off after the fighters swept into Ramadi. 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. “All DAESH (IS) fighters have left. There is no resistance,” Sabah al-Numan told AFP. “The operation is almost wrapped up; our forces will enter in the coming hours.” He said a major clearing effort was needed to allow forces to move in because IS rigged the entire area with roadside bombs and booby traps.
For that reason, the military and government did not immediately declare victory, but some people were already celebrating on the streets of several cities. After months of preparation, Iraqi forces backed by US-led coalition air strikes had punched into the centre of Ramadi on Tuesday, in a final push to retake the city they lost in May. The fighting over the past two days had been concentrated around the government complex, whose recapture had become synonymous with victory in the battle for Ramadi. According to medical sources in Baghdad, 93 members of the security forces were brought in with injuries on Sunday alone. “The dead bodies are taken directly to the main military hospital” near the airport, said one hospital source. At least five government fighters have been killed over the past two days alone, but no official has divulged any overall toll for the operation. Estimates a week ago were that the Islamic State had around 400 fighters to defend central Ramadi, many of them protecting the government compound. Those numbers were thought to have drastically declined over the past two days, with several fighters retreating from the main battle and dozens of others killed in fighting or in suicide attacks.
Ali Dawood, the head of the neighbouring Khaldiya council, said IS fighters used civilians as human shields to slip out of the government complex. “DAESH fighters forced all the families living around the compound to go with them in order to flee towards Sichariyah, Sufiya and Jweiba,” on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi, he said. He had said on Saturday that more than 250 families had managed to escape the combat zones since the start of the operation and had been escorted to safety by the army. Some of them were in camps with other displaced people in Anbar, while others headed to Baghdad or the northern autonomous Kurdish region.
According to the International Organization for Migration, Anbaris account for more than a third of the 3.2 million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes since January 2014. Ramadi lies about 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad and is the capital of Anbar, which is Iraq’s largest province and borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. A victory there would help boost Iraq’s much-criticised military, which collapsed when IS took over large parts of the country in June 2014. Government forces held off months of IS assaults in Ramadi until May 2015, when the jihadists blitzed them with massive suicide car bombs and seized full control of the city.