Iraqi security forces advanced Tuesday into the centre of Ramadi for a final push aimed at retaking the city they lost to the Islamic State group in May, officials said.
“We went into the centre of Ramadi from several fronts and we began purging residential areas,” said Sabah al-Noman, spokesman of the Iraqi counter-terrorism service.
“The city will be cleared in the coming 72 hours,” he said.
“Our forces reached the Bakr neighbourhood. We did not face strong resistance, only snipers and suicide bombers and this is a tactic we expected,” Noman told AFP.
The fresh push was launched overnight and is meant to result in the full recapture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western province of Anbar.
The fighting in Ramadi is led by the elite counter-terrorism force, backed by US-led coalition air strikes and also supported by forces from the police, the army and Sunni tribes opposed to the jihadists.
IS has lost several key towns in Iraq since Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region started fighting back following the jihadist group’s devastating offensive 18 months ago.
The Shiite-dominated Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces were heavily involved in the battles that led to the recapture of towns such as Tikrit and Baiji but they have remained on the fringes in the battle for Ramadi.
Retaking the city, an insurgent bastion that saw some of the deadliest fighting against US troops a decade ago, would be the Iraqi federal forces’ most significant victory so far.
“We built temporary bridges on the Euphrates and our forces were able to cross the river to enter residential areas and gain access to the city centre,” a brigadier general said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
IS fighters have had plenty of time to dig in since they took full control of Ramadi on May 17 after blitzing government forces with wave after wave of car and truck bomb attacks.
– Civilians fleeing –
The jihadists built tunnels to move without being exposed to the coalition’s daily raids but their supply lines were gradually all severed and military officials estimated last week there no more than 300 fighters left in the city.
The breakthrough came earlier this month when counter-terrorism forces broke down IS defences and retook the key southwestern neighbourhood of Al-Tameem.
After taking a few days to beef up their new positions, Iraqi military leaders had said in recent days a final push was imminent and leaflets urging the population to flee were dropped over the weekend.
“The distance between our forces and the governmental compound, which is located in the central district of Hoz, is less than a kilometre,” said the brigadier general, adding that clashes were ongoing.
The provincial headquarters is believed to be one of the main IS bases in the city and was at the heart of deadly fighting earlier this year.
According to another military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the press, 15 families managed to escape from Hoz in the past 24 hours.
“They were able to flee the lockdown imposed by Daesh on civilians and they found shelter with the army on the southern side of the city,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
The senior officer said the civilians were mostly children, women and elderly men, who were screened and then taken to a safe area on the edge of Ramadi.
Iraq’s defence minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, and other officials said in recent days they believed there were still a few civilians in Ramadi being used as human shields by IS.