- Key regional city had been held by militant group since May
- Offensive a day after Islamic State leader cites strength
Iraqi officials said security forces recaptured a second strategic city from Islamic State militants, dealing a blow to the group’s military campaign in OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer.
The reversal in Ramadi, 110 kilometers (68 miles) west of Baghdad, came after U.S. and coalition aircraft stepped up their bombing of Islamic State positions, including four airstrikes near the city on Saturday targeting vehicles, weaponry and tactical staging areas.
Government forces have “wrested the city of Ramadi from the claws” of Islamic State militants, Iraq’s joint forces command said in a statement Monday. The retaking of the city marks another step in attempts to reverse the militant group’s momentum in Iraq, following the fall of Tikrit to government forces earlier this year.
The government has said its next target is to recapture Mosul, which in June 2014 became the first major city to fall to the extremists, and to drive remaining Islamic State fighters out of Fallujah.
Ramadi, which fell to Islamic State in May, is strategically important because it lies in a province that links Iraq with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and allows direct entry into Baghdad. A large U.S. military base is also located there.
The militants had last taken refuge in two neighborhoods in the northeastern part of the city, according to Sheikh Rafaa al-Fahdawi, a tribal chief from Anbar province.
Counterterrorism forces, backed by Sunni fighters, had entered the governmental compound in the city center of Ramadi earlier in the day, al-Fahdawi said in a telephone interview. Iraqi forces were defusing booby-traps and other explosives the militants left, he said.
“We congratulate the Iraqi Security Forces for their continued success against ISIL in Ramadi,” U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman in Baghdad for the American-led coalition against Islamic State, said Monday, using an acronym for the group. Warren said in an e-mailed statement that support from the coalition in the fight for Ramadi has included training, special engineering equipment to clear explosives and more than 630 airstrikes.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also praised Iraq’s government and military, he cautioned that “Ramadi is not yet fully secure and additional parts of the city still must be retaken.”
Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition were intensified after the militant group claimed responsibility for the Paris terrorism attacks in November, which killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.
With President Barack Obama’s military strategy against Islamic State facing criticism as inadequate, especially from Republican president candidates, U.S. officials portrayed the progress in Ramadi as part of a broader success story.
“ISIL’s defeat in Ramadi is not an isolated event,” Kerry said in a statement. “It comes after losses this year in Tikrit, Baiji, Sinjar, and across northern Syria.”
On Saturday, a defiant message purportedly by Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the militant group to be as strong as ever. In the message, the first said to be from al-Baghdadi since May, he said the group had sustained setbacks before in Iraq and Syria, only to return stronger.
He also warned Israel that “Palestine will only be your graveyard.” That first explicit threat to Israel echoed a typical rallying cry used by Arab leaders for more than six decades. Sultan Barakat, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, said the warning may reflect an attempt to win support in the region by targeting a “common cause.”
Islamic State has declared a caliphate in areas of Syria and Iraq it has seized. The U.S. is undertaking a significant effort to find and kill Baghdadi, who is in hiding, an Obama administration official said earlier this month.
The U.S. has promised to send additional special forces to Iraq and Syria to combat the group. U.S. officials have said aerial bombing alone can’t defeat Islamic State, and that ground forces are needed. Baghdadi said the U.S. and its allies wouldn’t dare to send ground forces to fight Islamic State after being bogged down in lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Baghdadi was also dismissive of a newly announced Islamic alliance against terrorism, led by Saudi Arabia.
“If this coalition was Islamic, it would have staged a war against the Alawites and the Russians in Syria, it would have announced war against the Shiites and the Kurds in Iraq,” Baghdadi said, calling on Saudi citizens to join Islamic State.