BAGHDAD: Iraqi troops were getting ready on Sunday for a final push to take the remaining district held by Islamic State in the city of Ramadi, army spokesmen said.
Recapturing Ramadi, which fell to the militants in May, would be one of the most significant victories for Iraq’s armed forces since Islamic State swept across a third of the country in 2014.
The soldiers are within 300 meters (330 yards) of the provincial government compound, the target of the attack they launched on Tuesday, Sabah al-Numani, a spokesperson for the counter-terrorism force that is leading the fight on the government side, said.
“We expect to reach the compound in the next 24 hours,” he told Reuters. “Booby trapped houses and roadside bombs are all over the streets, they have to be cleared; air surveillance is helping detect car bombs and suicide bombers before they get to us.”
Ramadi is the capital of the mainly Sunni Muslim Anbar province in the fertile Euphrates River valley, just two hours drive west of Baghdad.
If the offensive in Ramadi succeeds, it will be the second main city to be retaken by the Iraqi government after Tikrit, in April. Officials said it would be handed over to the local police and to a Sunni tribal force once secured.
Ramadi was Islamic State’s biggest prize of 2015, abandoned by government forces in May in a major setback for Baghdad and for the Iraqi troops trained by the United States since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Iraqi government forces are backed by air support from an international coalition led by the United States.
Shi’ite militias backed by Iran, which have played a major role in other offensive against Islamic State, have been kept away by the Iraqi government from the battlefield in Ramadi to avoid sectarian tensions.
After Ramadi, the army plans to move to retake the northern city of Mosul, the biggest population centre under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria.
Dislodging the militants from Mosul, which had a pre-war population close to 2 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.
On another front in Anbar, the army took several positions in Nuaimiya, south of the city of Falluja, a bastion of the group that lies between Baghdad and Ramadi, killing 23 militants, the spokesman for the joint operations Brigadier Yahya Rasool said.