The Iraqi city of Ramadi is no longer in the control of Islamic State (IS) fighters, according to Iraqi authorities.
The capital of western Iraq's Anbar province, Ramadi was captured by the Islamist extremist group in May. After weeks of fighting, IS militants fled after being encircled by soldiers, policemen, and Sunni tribesmen, the military has declared an “epic” victory.
Although reports of further fighting and resistance suggest that it’s not yet a total liberation, Iraqi forces said Monday they’ve captured an essential government complex.
“The security forces have entered the governmental buildings and raised the Iraqi flags over them after killing many IS militants, and the rest have escaped,” Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, told The New York Times.
Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, head of military operations in Anbar, clarified that government forces have taken control of about 70 percent of the city, which is the center for the country’s Sunni Muslim minority. IS fighters remain in command of the rest.
"The troops only entered the government complex," Mr. 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 resistance pockets."
Recapturing Ramadi, located about 70 miles west of Baghdad, would be both a practical and symbolic victory over IS. It’s one of IS’s most significant conquests, which also include Raqqa, Syria; Mosul, Iraq; and the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Ramadi’s victory foreshadows the likely release of the latter city, as Iraq will be able to cut off its supply lines.
The victory could also give Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a leg up among the country’s alienated Sunni population, as his government is dominated by Shiites. But more importantly, the recapture of Ramadi helps to redeem a military that was once disorganized and reluctant to confront IS.
When the fighting began in early December, between 600 to 1,000 IS fighters resisted in Ramadi. As of last week, several hundred were killed by airstrikes and ground forces. Government airplanes dropped leaflets urging the city's tens of thousands of residents to evacuate before impending military operations.
By midday Monday, remaining IS fighters fled the government compound before the advancement of Iraqi forces supported by American airstrikes. Col. Steven H. Warren, the United States military spokesman in Baghdad, told The Times that the US has supplied Iraqi forces with more than 600 airstrikes since July.
Experts say fighting in proximity to Ramadi is likely to continue for some time. Starting in 2014, the Islamic State was able to take control of up to one third of Iraq, but has since faced fierce resistance from various Iraqi forces.
With the help of Shiite militias, the Iraqi government drove the Islamic State out of the city of Tikrit as well as the northern city of Baiji. More recently, Kurdish and Yazidi forces drove out IS fighters in the city of Sinjar.
“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,” Col. Warren said in a statement. “Today’s success is a proud moment for Iraq.”
Less than a decade ago, Ramadi, along with other cities in the Anbar province, saw heavy fighting between US troops and an Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State group's predecessor, after the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.