BAGHDAD • Iraq's armed forces stormed the centre of Ramadi yesterday, a spokesman for the elite counter-terrorism units involved in the operation said. The operation was a drive to dislodge Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants from their remaining stronghold in a city they captured in May.
The operation to recapture Ramadi, a Sunni Muslim city on the river Euphrates some 100km west of Baghdad, began in early November after a months-long effort to cut off supply lines to the city. Its fall to ISIS was a major defeat for Iraq's weak central government.
Progress has been slow because the government wants to rely entirely on its own troops and not use Shi'ite militias in order to avoid rights abuses such as what occurred after the recapture of the city of Tikrit from the militants in April.
United States officials have also cautioned against the use of Iran-backed Shi'ite militias in retaking Ramadi from the hardline Sunni militants to avoid fanning sectarian tensions. The Baghdad government has said it also wanted to spare civilians and give them the opportunity to leave the city.
"Our forces are advancing towards the government complex in the centre of Ramadi," the counter-terrorism spokesman, Mr Sabah al-Numani, said. "The fighting is in the neighbourhoods around the complex, with support from the air force. The city will be cleared in the coming 72 hours."
Iraqi intelligence estimates the number of ISIS fighters entrenched in the centre of Ramadi, the capital of Western Anbar province, at between 250 and 300.
The offensive to capture the city centre started at dawn, said Mr Numani. Military units crossed the Euphrates into the central districts using a bridge that was destroyed by the militants and repaired by army engineers.
"Crossing the river was the main difficulty," he said. "We're facing sniper fire and suicide bombers who are trying to slow our advance. We're dealing with them with air force support."
If the operation to capture Ramadi succeeds, it will be the second major city after Tikrit to be retaken from ISIS in Iraq.
ISIS also controls Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and Falluja, which lies between Ramadi and Baghdad.
Retaking Ramadi would provide a major psychological boost to Iraqi security forces after ISIS seized a third of Iraq, a major Opec oil producer and US ally, last year.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE