BAGHDAD — A triumphant Iraqi prime minister on Tuesday toured the western city of Ramadi, just a day after government troops routed Islamic State militants from the area and recaptured a key government complex.
Iraqi state TV reported that Haider al-Abadi was in Ramadi but offered no further details. But an Iraqi military commander, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Belawi told The Associated Press that the prime minister kicked off the visit by meeting security and provincial officials for the latest updates.
Across the city meanwhile, military engineering teams were clearing bombs from the streets and nearby buildings, al-Belawi said, even as sporadic clashes were underway in outlying parts of the city.
Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital, fell to IS in May, marking a major setback for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led campaign. The Baghdad government was quick to announce a counter-offensive to retake the city but attempts repeatedly stalled.
Then in November, al-Abadi’s forces announced a major push to recapture Ramadi, warning residents to leave and advancing quickly across the Euphrates River.
Their progress was subsequently slowed by heavy IS resistance, booby-trapped buildings and sniper fire. The militants blew up all bridges leading into the city centre.
On Monday, Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, drove IS militants out of the city centre and raised the Iraqi flag over the government complex.
As significant — and symbolic — as the action was, Iraqi military officials said Islamic State fighters were still holed up in various pockets of the city.
Ramadi, located about 130 kilometres (80 miles) west of Baghdad, and nearby Fallujah, which lies half-way on the road to Baghdad and remains under IS control, saw some of the heaviest fighting of the eight-year U.S. intervention in Iraq.
Monday’s recapture of the government complex is certainly likely to lift the morale of Iraqi forces, who were badly shaken by the city’s fall in May, which came despite months of U.S.-led airstrikes and advances against IS elsewhere in the country.
The IS still controls much of northern and western Iraq, as well as vast swaths of neighbouring Syria. It has declared a caliphate in the areas under its control and imposed a harsh and violent interpretation of Islamic law.
Iraqi state TV was replaying Monday’s footage from Ramadi, showing troops, some waving Iraqi flags and others brandishing machine-guns, chanting and dancing inside what it described as the government complex in central Ramadi. Soldiers could be seen slaughtering sheep in celebration near heavily damaged buildings.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the U.S. Central Command, congratulated Iraqi forces on the “important operational achievement.”
Authorities have not provided casualty figures from the fighting or Ramadi.