BAGHDAD — Iraqi government forces retook central parts of the key city of Ramadi on Monday from Islamic State militants, the military said.
The announcement by Iraq’s military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, was broadcast live on state TV. He said Ramadi had been “grabbed from the hateful claws” of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
The operation’s success was confirmed by the Pentagon.
“The expulsion of ISIL by Iraqi security forces, supported by our international coalition, is a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group and restore Iraq’s territorial sovereignty,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement.
The Islamic State still controlled five neighborhoods on the eastern edge of Ramadi that make up about 10% of the city, but government forces had surrounded those pockets of resistance, an Iraqi military officer said Monday. The officer asked not to be named, because he wasn’t authorized to discuss details of the offensive.
He said Iraqi troops are trying to keep the militants from fleeing to nearby Fallujah, which remains under Islamic State control.
An Iraqi military commander, Abdul Ghani Al Assad, also said the Islamic State still held outlying districts of Ramadi, but the group’s fighters were now on the run.
“Daesh fled to the eastern outskirts of the city,” said Al Assad, using the Arabic term for ISIL. “We will chase them to end their evil totally.”
Iraq’s government has been trying for weeks to recapture Ramadi, which is about 70 miles west of Baghdad. It fell to the Islamic State in May. Iraq’s security forces said Sunday that they had encircled the key government facility after several days of fighting.
Secretary of State John Kerry applauded Iraq’s victory. “While Ramadi is not yet fully secure and additional parts of the city still must be retaken, Iraq’s national flag now flies above the provincial government center and enemy forces have suffered a major defeat,” he said.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, said the success by Iraqi military forces in securing the government complex “clearly demonstrates that the enemy is losing momentum as they steadily cede territory” in Iraq and Syria.
Recapturing control of Ramadi is a coup for the Obama administration’s counter-Islamic State campaign, said Nicholas Heras, an expert on security in the Middle East at the Center for a New American Security.
The revised strategy announced by Carter in October centered in part on retaking Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, made up of mostly Sunni Arabs. Other elements include increased raids on Islamic State leadership and pressuring Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital in Syria.
“It is not an overstatement to say that the recapture of Ramadi provides a boost to the administration’s narrative that it has an effective strategy to defeat ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria,” Heras said.
The operation also boosts Iraqi forces, Heras said. The Pentagon hopes they can develop non-sectarian, competent leaders who are not beholden to Iranian Revolutionary Guard-influenced, Shiite militias. Retaking Ramadi primarily with Iraqi troops and Sunni militias backed by U.S. air power will be the model for future battles against the Islamic State in Anbar province.
“Ramadi should be assessed as a strong first move in a larger chess game against ISIS in Iraq, and not as a move that threatens ISIS with a checkmate,” Heras said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., a critic of President Obama’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State, praised the Iraqi victory but said the United States needs to do more.
“If our goal truly is to destroy ISIL in the near future, rather than kick the can down the road for others to deal with, the United States must play a far more active role than we are now,” McCain said.