BAGHDAD – About 700 Islamic State fighters were believed to be hiding in the center and eastern outskirts of Ramadi on Wednesday, three days after Iraqi government forces claimed victory over the militants in the western city, the U.S.-led coalition said.
The U.N. refugee agency, assisting families who have left the Anbar provincial capital, said that despite gains by security forces, conditions were not yet good enough for tens of thousands of displaced residents to return.
Much of the center of Ramadi, which previously had a population exceeding 400,000, still needs to be cleared of explosives laid by the jihadi insurgents who seized the city 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad in May, the coalition said.
After months of cautious advances backed by coalition airstrikes, the Iraqi army retook Ramadi on Sunday, its first big victory against the hard-line Sunni Islamists since they swept through a third of Iraq in mid-2014.
“Within what we call central Ramadi, they estimate still up to 400 Daesh (Islamic State) members, and then, once you go east of that towards Falluja, you’ve got about 300 out there in that direction,” U.S. Army Capt. Chance McCraw, a coalition intelligence officer, told reporters in Baghdad.
Some of these Islamic State militants could try to attack Iraqi forces or returning civilians with snipers and bomb attacks.
Security sources said insurgents clashed with federal police and tribal fighters on Wednesday in Husaiba al-Sharqiya and Jweba, on the eastern fringes of Ramadi. There was no immediate confirmed information on casualties.
“In central Ramadi the house-borne IED (improvised explosive device) continues to be a threat even once CTS (counterterrorism service) goes through and that’s why you don’t see civilians moving back into various areas,” McCraw said.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Wednesday ordered the immediate formation of a high-level committee including the Anbar governor and senior federal government officials to stabilize and rebuild Ramadi.
He called for the immediate removal of explosives and the restoration of basic services to allow the safe return of civilians to their homes.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Abadi on Wednesday and offered U.N. support to help restore basic services in Ramadi to allow civilians to return, a U.N. spokesman said in a statement.
The United Nations estimates initial reconstruction needs in Ramadi require about $20 million, but the longer term outlay is likely to be much greater for a city battered by U.S. airstrikes and Islamic State explosives over the past six months.
“Areas are still insecure, littered with IEDs, and there has been extensive damage of public buildings and houses. Electricity and water services have been damaged,” the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Iraqi trade ministry said it was preparing to send emergency food aid to Ramadi.
Some districts of the city are littered with explosives.
McCraw said that in one of the more heavily defended areas, Iraqi forces had found about 300 explosives planted along a 150-meter (150-yard) stretch south of the main government complex. After clearing that area, they found more bombs scattered every 50 meters or so, he said.
Nearly 1.4 million people have been displaced from all of Anbar province, according to U.N. estimates. Iraq’s government says most civilians fled Ramadi before its assault on the city.
McCraw and other coalition officials declined to estimate how long it would take Iraqi forces to secure the whole city. They said about 400 members of the Anbar police had arrived to help hold areas cleared by better trained and equipped counterterrorism forces that spearheaded the Ramadi operation.
Abadi has pledged to retake Mosul, 400 km (250 miles) north of Baghdad, next year and said this would deal a final blow to Islamic State. It is the largest Iraqi city under the group’s control and is expected to be harder to recapture than Ramadi.
Baghdad has said Sunni Muslim tribal fighters will make up the main holding force in Ramadi, a role played in other areas taken from Islamic State by mainly Iranian-backed Sh’ite Muslim armed groups, but the latter were held back from Ramadi for fear of stoking sectarian tensions.
The coalition said its advisers were not on the ground during the Ramadi battle but provided training and equipment to Iraqi forces.