Attempts to retake key areas intensify as soldiers flow into some of the war’s hardest hit towns and cities.
Iraqi forces claimed victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Ramadi as clearing operations were under way to flush out the armed group’s remaining fighters in the key city.
“Yes, the city of Ramadi has been liberated,” Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said in a televised statement on Monday, a day after the army took control of the key government compound in Ramadi’s Al Huz neighbourhood.
“The Iraqi counterterrorism forces have raised the Iraqi flag over the government complex in Anbar,” Rasool added, saying the fighting will continue until the whole city is liberated.
“This is a new chapter in the history of the country.”
Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar province, fell to ISIL in May in an embarrassing setback for Iraqi forces.
Analysts say recapturing the provincial capital, which is just 100km west of Baghdad, could deprive ISIL of its biggest prize of 2015.
“By controlling the complex this means that we have defeated them in Ramadi,” said Sabah al-Numani, a spokesman for government forces.
“The next step is to clear pockets that could exist here or there in the city.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed to free the whole country from ISIL in 2016.
“If 2015 was a year of liberation, 2016 will be the year of great victories, terminating the presence of Daesh [ISIL] in Iraq and Mesopotamia,” he said in a televised address. “We are coming to liberate Mosul, which will be the fatal blow to Daesh.”
Mark Kimmitt, a former US assistant secretary of political and military affairs, said recapturing Ramadi was just a small part of defeating ISIL
“The Iraqi army has improved but to take Mosul is going to take thousands and thousands of soldiers, and one question is whether those soldiers are ready at this point,” Kimmitt told Al Jazeera.
“It could well be that next year by this time that ISIS is pushed out of Iraq and Iraq has restored its borders, but anybody that thinks that is the beginning of the end of ISIS I think doesn’t understand that ISIS has truly metastatised inside the region,” he added.
“We are going to be fighting this long war for a generation.”
First major victory
US Army Colonel Steve Warren congratulated Iraq’s military for its recent gains.
“We congratulate the Iraqi security forces for their continued success against ISIL in Ramadi. The clearance of the government centre is a significant accomplishment and is the result of many months of hard work,” Warren said in a statement.
If the recapture of Ramadi is confirmed, it will be the first major city seized from ISIL by Iraq’s military, which in past battles against the armed group had operated mainly in a supporting role alongside Iran-backed Shia militias.
The militias were held back from the battlefield in Ramadi this time to avoid antagonising the mainly Sunni population.
The government has said that the next target after Ramadi will be the northern city of Mosul – by far the largest population centre controlled by ISIL in either Iraq or Syria.
|Iraqi forces make major gains against ISIL in Ramadi|