BAGHDAD – Iraqi government forces have regained full control of Ramadi after pushing Islamic State group fighters out of the city’s outskirts, according to Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition. The announcement, more than a month after Ramadi was first declared liberated in December, underscores the slow nature of Iraqi ground operations despite heavy backing from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
The governor of Anbar province praised Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition for their work to “liberate Ramadi completely,” but was quick to emphasize that critical security and humanitarian issues remained. Violence has emptied Ramadi of civilians and much of the city remains blanketed in homemade bombs, also called improvised explosive devices or IEDs, which Islamic State laid in retreat.
Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the coalition, told The Associated Press that Iraqi security forces have control of the whole city but “untold thousands” of improvised explosive devices were left behind.
Iraqi government troops, led by the country’s elite counterterrorism forces, pushed Islamic State out of the center of Ramadi in December, but struggled to take control of the city’s outskirts. Explosives were a main factor that slowed the clearing of neighborhoods.
Now, Anbar’s governor says the bombs are preventing civilians from returning home.
“The issue of IEDs is an extremely challenging one,” Suhaib al-Rawi told reporters in Baghdad.
Iraqi forces allied with the government have clawed back pockets of territory from the extremist group in recent months, but destruction and insecurity in many of the “liberated” areas has prevented large-scale returns of civilians.
The U.S.-led coalition estimated last year that Islamic State had lost 40 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq, but the United Nations estimates more than 3 million Iraqis remain internally displaced by violence, insecurity and destruction.
Efforts to clear Ramadi of explosives have been slowed by a lack of funding, Rawi said, explaining that Iraq’s economic crisis has left the province in debt and entirely reliant on international aid donations to rebuild. An Initial assessment of destruction in Ramadi carried out by the U.N. last month said more than 4,500 buildings has been damaged or destroyed during the battle to reclaim the city.
“The level of destruction in Ramadi is as bad as anything we have seen in Iraq,” said Lise Grande, the U.N.’s deputy special representative to Iraq. Iraqi and coalition officials estimate that rebuilding Ramadi could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Warren, the U.S.-led coalition spokesman, said despite the gains, the threat of counterattacks on Ramadi remains high. Just 50 km to Ramadi’s east, the city of Fallujah remains firmly under Islamic State control more than two years after it fell to the group. The city is under siege by Iraqi government troops, but Iraqi officials say the northern city of Mosul is the government’s next priority.
Iraq announced plans to send thousands of additional troops to a base outside Mosul on Monday in anticipation of an operation to liberate the city.
Ramadi fell to Islamic State in May 2015 in the largest defeat for Iraq’s military since Mosul fell in 2014. At the height of the group’s strength, Islamic State controlled more than a third of Iraqi territory before a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes began in August 2014.