BAGHDAD • Iraqi forces closed in on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group's last redoubts in central Ramadi yesterday, to retake the city they lost in May and further shrink the Islamists' "caliphate".
A day after punching deep into the city centre, forces led by the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) inched towards the governmental compound in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's vast Anbar province.
"The anti-terrorism troops are now poised to break into the Hoz area where the governmental compound is located," a brigadier-general in the force told Agence France-Presse.
Government forces expect to dislodge ISIS militants from the western Iraqi city within days, state television said yesterday, citing the army chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Othman al-Ghanemi. A CTS spokesman said on Tuesday the city would be recaptured in three days.
Government forces, which have been supported by daily air strikes by the United States-led coalition, had to move carefully through the devastated city, with its deserted streets littered with rubble and shrapnel.
Retreating ISIS fighters usually booby-trap their abandoned positions, plant roadside bombs and move in tunnels which could also be rigged with huge explosive charges. Iraqi forces clearing residential neighbourhoods in Ramadi were finding huge amounts of ammunition and explosives, including rockets made from gas canisters.
Officials estimated before the latest push into Ramadi that no more than 300 ISIS fighters remained holed up in the centre.
"The fall of Ramadi is inevitable, the end is coming but... it's going to be a tough fight," the US-led coalition's spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, told reporters on Tuesday.
He said thousands of civilians were still believed to be inside Ramadi, some of them used as human shields by ISIS, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh.
Several officials said groups of ISIS fighters were trying to slip through gaps in the Iraqi forces' net around the city. "Dozens of Daesh members have withdrawn from the city centre towards Sufiya and Sichariyah", east of Ramadi along the Euphrates Valley, said Mr Ibrahim al-Fahdawi, who heads the security committee in Khaldiya district.
The recapture of Ramadi would further isolate ISIS-held Fallujah - which lies halfway on the road to Baghdad - and undermine the viability of the group's self-proclaimed "caliphate".
Iraq's defence minister, Mr Khaled al-Obeidi, said last week that successive operations by the Iraqi security forces and its allies had shrunk the territory held by ISIS in Iraq from roughly 40 per cent of the country last year to 17 per cent.
Tuesday's big push into central Ramadi was only the latest step in a months-long operation, which saw Iraqi forces gradually close in after cutting off supply lines into Anbar and retaking neighbourhoods, key roads and bridges.
"This has been a grinding battle of attrition. I think ISIS in Ramadi is exhausted. The city has been isolated for a while," said Mr David Witty, a retired US army special forces colonel and former adviser to CTS.
The slow pace of the Ramadi operation had triggered calls from some critics for a greater role for the Shi'ite-dominated Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces or even US troops on the ground.
But Baghdad largely stuck to its strategy, resorting to newly trained local forces from Anbar to move in and hold the ground recaptured by federal forces.
The loss of Ramadi in mid-May had been Baghdad's worst defeat in the war against ISIS and its recapture would provide a welcome morale boost to the country's much-criticised military.
The extremist group still controls Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS