Baghdad: Jihadist fighters abandoned their last stronghold in Ramadi on Sunday, bringing Iraqi federal forces within sight of their biggest victory since last year`s massive offensive by the Islamic State group.
The elite counter-terrorism service was hours away from moving into the former government complex in Ramadi, which IS had fiercely defended for several days, the force`s spokesman said. "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." It was not immediately clear whether any pockets of jihadist fighters remained in the city centre but most of them were thought to have regrouped east of Ramadi.
Numan said a major clearing effort was needed to allow forces to move in because IS had 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 Iraqi 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.
The US-led coalition said its aircraft carried out 31 air strikes in the Ramadi area over the past week. 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, Anbar residents 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 kilometres (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.
The "Hashed al-Shaabi" (Popular Mobilisation), a force dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militia groups, played a leading role in the recapture of several cities and areas but stayed on the fringes in Ramadi. "The prestige goes to the Iraqi military," said political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari. "As an institution, it`s the first time since the Daesh invasion (in June 2014) it has achieved a victory without the support of the Popular Mobilisation force," he said.
Shammari argued the positive outcome in Ramadi would vindicate Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as well as the US-led coalition, both frequently criticised for failing to retake Ramadi faster. 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.
The fightback has often been laborious and poisoned by political wrangling, but Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said a week ago that Iraqi forces had reclaimed half of the territory nationwide lost to IS last year. IS still holds Fallujah, which lies in the Euphrates Valley between Ramadi and Baghdad, as well as the country`s second city of Mosul.