RAMADI • Iraqi forces swept the devastated streets of Ramadi for bombs yesterday, after recapturing the city and clinching a major victory against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The Iraqi national flag has been raised above the government complex in the city, Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, a spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, announced on state television.
Reacting to the news, Iraqis celebrated on the streets of several cities and officials congratulated the federal forces on their biggest victory since ISIS overran large parts of the country. Ramadi, capital of mainly Sunni Muslim Anbar province in the Euphrates River valley west of Baghdad, fell in May and became ISIS' biggest prize of the year.
Explosives and ordnance disposal teams now face the mammoth task of clearing Ramadi, where ISIS laid thousands of bombs.
"ISIS has planted more than 300 explosive devices on the roads and in the buildings of the government complex," said Brigadier-General Majid al-Fatlawi of the army's 8th Division. "They used everything from oxygen bottles to jerry cans that contain C-4 (plastic explosive) and chlorine," he said.
RELIEF FOR CIVILIANS
We have trained hundreds of tribal fighters. Their role will be holding the ground. Seeing their own tribes responsible for security will be a relief for the civilians.
BRIGADIER-GENERAL YAHYA RASOOL, a spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, on how Ramadi will be handed over to local police and a Sunni tribal force once it is secured, to win over the community to the fight against ISIS
Several local officials said ISIS used civilians as human shields to escape the battle when it became clear their last stand in Ramadi was doomed.
ISIS had an estimated force of 400 fighters to defend central Ramadi a week ago. It is not clear how many were killed and how many were able to pull back to positions outside the city. The Iraqi authorities did not divulge any casualty figures for the federal forces, but medics told Agence France-Presse that close to 100 wounded government fighters were taken to Baghdad hospitals on Sunday alone.
ISIS, also known by the acronyms ISIL or Daesh, swept through a third of Iraq in June last year and declared a "caliphate" to rule over all Muslims from territory in both Iraq and Syria, carrying out mass killings and imposing a draconian form of Islam.
Its rise was aided by the swift collapse of the Iraqi army, which abandoned city after city, leaving fleets of armoured vehicles and other American weapons in the fighters' hands.
Since then, the battle against the group in both Iraq and Syria has drawn in most global and regional powers, often with competing allies on the ground in complex multisided civil wars.
Ramadi is the first major city recaptured by the Iraqi army itself, without relying on Shi'ite militias, who were kept off the battlefield to avoid sectarian tension with the mainly Sunni population.
The Iraqi government, led by Shi'ite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has said Ramadi would be handed over to local police and a Sunni tribal force once it is secured, a measure meant to win over the community to the fight against ISIS.
"We have trained hundreds of tribal fighters. Their role will be holding the ground," said Brig-Gen Yahya. "Seeing their own tribes responsible for security will be a relief for the civilians" and will help convince those who have been displaced to return to the city, he added.
The government says the next target after Ramadi would be the northern city of Mosul, by far the largest population centre controlled by ISIS in either Iraq or Syria.
"The smooth victory in Ramadi should be happy news for the residents of Mosul," said Iraqi government spokesman Sabah al-Numani. United States officials had hoped Baghdad would launch an assault on Mosul during the year, but this was put off after ISIS fighters swept into Ramadi in May.
Dislodging the extremists from Mosul, which had a pre-war population close to two million, would effectively abolish their state structure in Iraq and deprive them of a major source of funding, which comes partly from oil and partly from fees and taxes on residents.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS