BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi military forces on Monday retook a strategic government complex in the city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants who have occupied the city since May, military officials said — a symbolic victory that could help lift the morale of Iraq’s beleaguered security forces as they battle to retake the rest of the city.
In a televised statement, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool initially announced that Ramadi had been “grabbed from the hateful claws” of the Islamic State group and “fully liberated.”
But Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, head of military operations in Anbar, quickly clarified that government forces had only retaken a strategic government complex and that parts of the city remained under IS control. IS fighters have retreated from about 70 percent of city, but still control the rest; government forces still don’t fully control many of the districts from which the IS fighters have retreated.
“The troops only entered the government complex,” 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.”
Iraqi state TV showed troops, some waving Iraqi flags and others brandishing machine guns, chanting and dancing inside what it described as the government complex. Some troops were seen slaughtering sheep in celebration near heavily damaged buildings.
The capital of Anbar province, Ramadi was one of the Iraqi cities under the full control of IS fighters. The city, and others in Anbar province, was the scene of fierce battles between U.S. military troops and the Islamic State group’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman in Baghdad for the U.S. military told AP that “today’s success is a proud moment for Iraq.”
“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 Counter Terrorism Service, the Iraqi Air Force, local and federal police, and tribal fighters,” Warren said.
He added that the U.S.-led coalition has provided steadfast support to the Iraqi government, conducting more than 630 airstrikes, training security forces, and providing both advice and specialized engineering equipment to clear bombs and booby traps.
“The coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq as they move forward to make Ramadi safe for civilians to return and as the military moves to fight ISIL in other areas of the country,” he continued, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
The Iraqi military launched a long-promised campaign to retake the city, located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of Baghdad, last week. Their progress had been hampered by snipers, booby traps and the destruction by IS militants of all bridges leading into Ramadi.
The extremists control large swaths of land in western and northern Iraq and in neighboring Syria. The IS group has declared a self-styled caliphate on the territory it controls.