BAGHDAD/RAMADI, IRAQ – Iraqi forces pushed out of central Ramadi Friday to extend their grip on the city, sweeping neighborhoods for pockets of jihadis to flush out and trapped civilians to evacuate.
Federal forces declared victory Sunday in the battle for Ramadi, which was months in the making, but the Anbar provincial capital has not yet been fully secured.
“Our security forces launched an operation from Khaldiya, east of Ramadi, and managed to liberate the College of Agriculture,” said Hamid al-Dulaimi, Ramadi district mayor.
“They are clearing several other neighbourhoods,” he said.
Police chief Hadi Irzayij said security forces detained 30 suspected Islamic State group fighters “who were attempting to flee Ramadi by blending in with civilians.”
“We are following a plan put together in a way that will prevent casualties in the ranks of the security forces,” the police chief added.
Islamic State, which took full control of Ramadi in May 2015, had planted thousands of explosive devices on roads and in buildings to defend the city.
Clearing operations are led by Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service (CTS), along with army, police and local tribal forces, as well as aerial backing from the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.
The jihadis are no longer in a position to fight back, but many managed to pull out of last week’s main battle and redeploy in eastern Ramadi or nearby rural areas.
On Friday, Islamic State staged a large attack on a compound used by the army’s 10th Division, in a desert area north of Ramadi.
“They used six suicide vehicles followed by a commando of fighters wearing explosive belts,” said a lieutenant colonel.
“They managed to take control of the base when the army had to pull out because it suffered casualties. … Iraqi forces have since counterattacked and retaken control, with aerial coalition backing,” he said.
Coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren confirmed the attack and said he expected the Iraqi forces to soon retake full control of the compound.
A CTS colonel confirmed Friday that around 30 Islamic State militants had been arrested as they tried to slip out of Ramadi, describing some of them as senior local leaders.
Majed Mohammed, a CTS major, told AFP: “What we are doing now is saving the trapped families”.
He said their task was complicated by the high number of roadside bombs and the fact that Islamic State was firing on civilians trying to escape.
One woman who was evacuated from an Islamic State-held area on the eastern edge of Ramadi said the jihadis tried to round up residents when some of them started fleeing.
“We refused; we stayed in our houses and the word reached us that the Iraqi forces were coming,” she said, refusing to give her name.
“We were 15 homes. We got in touch with each other and left all together at seven in the morning. … They (IS) tried to stop us and chased us but the Iraqi forces arrived,” she said.
Lt. Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, the commander of CTS, told AFP 400 families were rescued and taken to safety by the security forces on Wednesday and Thursday alone.
“We take charge of the families according to a well-executed plan by our troops, and this plan guarantees the safety of those families,” he said.
A police lieutenant colonel said another 90 people, including 73 women and children, were evacuated Friday from the Thayla neighborhood.
“Our forces there also found seven bodies, including two women and two children, that appeared not to have any wounds,” he said.
Temperatures have been low in recent days and civilian survivors have said the fighting had left them with little or no access to food.
Sitting in a tented camp in Habbaniyah where the army took most of the evacuated families, one woman recounted her family’s survival.
“We had no food, no flour. We only had flour for animals. We had to pick out the bugs before kneading Terrified families waved white flags as they emerged from homes reduced to rubble in Ramadi, where government troops were still battling Islamic State fighters holed up on Friday, five days after the army recaptured the city center.
The provincial capital in the fertile Euphrates River valley west of Baghdad is the biggest city to have been recaptured from Islamic State, and the first retaken by Iraq’s army since it collapsed in the path of the militants’ advance 18 months ago.
The victory has been hailed as a turning point by the Iraqi government, which says its rebuilt army will soon march on Islamic State’s main Iraqi stronghold Mosul farther north, and defeat the group in Iraq in 2016.
As an Iraqi army column advanced through the ruined city, an elderly woman emerged from a home waving a white flag on the end of a stick. Soon, she was followed by children, a wounded woman being pushed in a wheelbarrow and men carrying small children in their arms. They flinched as explosions could be heard in the distance.
“They (Islamic State) are not Muslims, they are beasts,” one of the men rescued from the central district told a Reuters television cameraman accompanying the advancing Iraqi column.
“We thank our security forces, from the soldiers to the generals. They saved us,” the man said before breaking into tears.
Another man told Reuters television that the fighters had killed seven people who refused to come with them to another district where they were making a stand.
Maj. Salam Hussein told Reuters television that the militants were using families as human shields. More than 52 families had been rescued so far in the city, he said.
Another military officer, reached by telephone from the battlefield, said security forces were using loudspeakers to urge civilians to head toward the advancing troops, before calling airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition on residential blocks still held by the militants.
The presence of civilians was delaying the advance of the troops eastward from the central district they captured on Sunday, where the provincial government is located, the officer said.
“Warplanes do not strike any target in central Ramadi unless they are sure there are no civilians The victory in Ramadi, which was captured by Islamic State fighters in May, was by far the biggest success for Iraq’s army since it fled in the face of the fighters’ lightning advance across a third of Iraq in 2014, abandoning its American armour.
Islamic State, also known by the English acronyms ISIS or ISIL or the Arabic acronym Daesh, has declared a “caliphate” to rule over all Muslims from territory it controls in both Iraq and Syria.
The fighters have imposed an ultra-hardline version of Sunni Islam disavowed by all major Sunni authorities, and carried out mass killings and rapes. Most regional and world powers have joined the battle against them, often backing rival groups in complex, multisided civil wars in both Iraq and Syria that make it difficult to achieve international unity.
The United States is leading a coalition with European countries and major Arab states that has been striking Islamic State targets from the air, but a central challenge has been rebuilding the Iraqi army into a force capable of capturing and holding territory on the ground.
Previous battles were fought with the army playing a supporting role behind Iranian-backed Shiite militia fighters, although this risked alienating Sunni Muslim residents in Islamic State-held areas.
A key part of the strategy for the government is to put Ramadi in the hands of local Sunni tribal figures, an echo of the 2006-2007 “surge” campaign by U.S. forces at the height of the 2003-2011 U.S. war in Iraq, in which Washington secured the help of Sunni tribes against a precursor of Islamic State.
Provincial police chief Brigadier Hadi Rizaiyj said police were investigating males who remained behind in Ramadi to determine whether they had links with Islamic State.
“The counterterrorism forces are freeing civilians in distress and delivering them to the Anbar province police; the police then have names of wanted people,” Rizaiyj said.
“If we can prove that a civilian had a brother fighting with Daesh and he helped him with information or something similar, then we keep him with us” before turning them over to the judiciary on terrorism charges, he said.
Some 4 million people have fled Islamic State-held territory in Iraq, most of them Sunni Muslims.
Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, whose strong backing for the campaign against Islamic State has helped rally Shiites behind Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, called for local tribes to be enlisted to prevent Islamic State fighters from returning to recaptured areas.
“Bringing home the displaced people should be done according to a mechanism,” said a sermon read out by Sistani’s representative, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, in the holy Shiite city of Kerbala.
“Security forces, together with the residents of these areas and the tribes, should coordinate to ensure that the terrorist gangs cannot return again and form sleeper cells that constitute a danger.”