RAMADI, IRAQ/LONDON – Iraq declared the city of Ramadi liberated from the Islamic State group on Monday and raised the national flag over its government complex after clinching a landmark victory against the jihadis.
Fighters brandishing rifles danced in the Anbar provincial capital as top commanders paraded through the streets after recapturing the city they lost to Islamic State in May.
Pockets of jihadis may remain but the army said it no longer faced any resistance and that its main task was to defuse the countless bombs and traps Islamic State left behind.
“Ramadi has been liberated and the armed forces of the counterterrorism service have raised the Iraqi flag above the government complex,” Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool announced on state television.
The former government headquarters in Ramadi was the epicenter of the fighting but Iraqi forces did not rush in when Islamic State pulled out.
“Daesh has planted more than 300 explosive devices on the roads and in the buildings of the government complex,” said Brig. Gen. Majid al-Fatlawi of the army’s 8th division.
Several local officials said Islamic State used civilians as human shields to escape the battle when it became clear their last stand in Ramadi was doomed.
A senior army commander told AFP that his forces were still sweeping the outskirts of the city for potential pockets of jihadis.
Islamic State had an estimated force of around 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.
he Iraqi authorities did not divulge any casualty figures for federal forces but medics told AFP that close to 100 wounded government fighters were brought to Baghdad hospitals on Sunday alone.
“The dead bodies are taken directly to the main military hospital” near the airport, said one hospital source, explaining why he could not provide a death toll.
The U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition praised the performance of the Iraqi forces in retaking Ramadi, an operation in which it played a significant role, training local forces, arming them and carrying out what it said were 600 airstrikes since July.
French President Francois Hollande called the liberation of Ramadi the “most important victory yet” in the fight against the jihadis.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “it shows once again that IS is not unbeatable.
The jihadis’ loss of Ramadi came on the heels of the recapture in neighboring Syria of a key dam on the Euphrates by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab rebels.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi congratulated the fighters who retook Ramadi, vowing to liberate the second city of Mosul and rid the entire country of Islamic State in 2016.
“We are coming to liberate Mosul, which will be the fatal blow to Daesh,” he said in a televised address.
Anbar residents account for more than a third of the 3.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced by conflict since the start of 2014.
Ramadi is devastated and a return to normalcy is some way away.
Sohaib Ali, 27, fled with his three children and the rest of his family to the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region Irbil nearly two years ago when violence first hit Ramadi.
“We do not intend to return for now, although this liberation makes us very happy. We can see that huge damage was caused in the city and I don’t think that basic services will return for a while, nor will security,” he said.
Iraq’s defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, said a week ago that Iraqi forces had reconquered more than half of the territory lost to Islamic State in June and August 2014.
The victory in Ramadi follows others in Baiji, north of Baghdad, and Sinjar, the hub of the Yazidi minority in the northeast of the country.
Ramadi was recaptured by federal forces, with the Popular Mobilization — a paramilitary force dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militia groups — remaining on the fringes.
Many of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s political rivals had questioned his strategy of excluding those groups and relying on the U.S.-led coalition’s air power.
“The prestige goes to the Iraqi military,” said political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari.
“As an institution, it’s the first time since the Daesh invasion (in June 2014) it has achieved a victory without the support of the Popular Mobilization force,” he said.
The Iraq army collapsed when Islamic State attacked Mosul in June 2014 and swept across Iraq’s Sunni Britain on Monday congratulated Iraq after Ramadi was recaptured.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond congratulated the Iraqi government after the national flag was raised over the provincial capital of Anbar once it was liberated from Islamic State fighters.
“This is the latest in a series of significant losses for Daesh. These barbaric terrorists have lost 30 percent of the territory they once held in Iraq,” Hammond said in a statement.
“They have been driven out of cities across the country by Iraqi forces, with support from the U.K. and the global coalition.”
British jets have been striking Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
“The Royal Air Force’s close air support operations around Ramadi in recent days have played a key role in the battle,” Hammond said.
“We will continue to support the government of Iraq as it re-establishes the security, governance and services the people of Ramadi will need as they return to their city.
“This remains a long fight, but the coalition’s strategy is succeeding. We will continue to stand with the Iraqi people until Daesh is defeated.”
Fighters brandishing rifles danced in Ramadi as top commanders paraded through the streets after recapturing the city they lost to Islamic State in May.