Islamic State militants on Friday captured the main government compound in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar province, raising their black flag over the facility and torching the police headquarters.
The advance marks the latest gain for the extremist group in the vast desert province west of Baghdad, where U.S. troops fought some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war, and where IS fighters have controlled the city of Fallujah for over a year.
Ramadi’s Mayor Dalaf al-Kubaisi said the militants raised their black flag over the compound — which houses provincial and municipal government offices — after troops were forced to withdraw during a complex attack in which three suicide car bombs killed at least 10 police. Dozens more were wounded, he said.
He said the IS militants, who also seized other parts of the city, are now attacking the Anbar Operation Command, the military headquarters for the province.
Anbar provincial councilman Taha Abdul-Ghani said the militants killed dozens more captured security forces in the city as well as their families, without providing an exact figure. He said Iraqi and coalition warplanes were bombing the militants inside the compound.
A senior U.S. military officer nevertheless downplayed the IS group’s latest gains in Ramadi, saying they were temporary and unlikely to withstand Iraqi counterattacks.
Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas D. Weidley, the chief of staff for the U.S. command leading the campaign against the IS group, said the militants had executed a “complex attack” on Ramadi but could not confirm that they had captured the government compound.
Speaking by telephone from his headquarters in Kuwait, Weidley said the Iraqi army and police control most of the key facilities, infrastructure and roadways in the Ramadi area. He suggested that IS militants were trying to inflate the significance of what he called limited gains in Ramadi.
“Daesh does remain on the defensive,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “We’ve seen similar attacks in Ramadi over the last several months for which the ISF (Iraqi security forces) have been able to repel, and we see this one being similar to those.”
U.S. troops saw some of the heaviest fighting of the eight-year Iraq intervention in Anbar, and Ramadi was a major insurgent stronghold. The IS group captured the nearby city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in January 2014, three years after U.S. forces withdrew and months before its main sweep across northern and western Iraq last summer.
Iraqi officials said the IS assault on the Ramadi compound began with three nearly simultaneous suicide car bombings. Two Humvees previously seized from the Iraqi army were used in Friday’s attack, al-Kubaisi said.
Dozens of families were forced to flee their homes in the area, said Athal al-Fahdawi, an Anbar councilman.
The head of Anbar’s provincial council, Sabah Karhout, appealed to the central government in Baghdad to send reinforcements and urged the U.S.-led coalition to increase airstrikes against the militants in Ramadi.
“The city is undergoing vicious attack by Daesh and we are in dire need of any kind of assistance,” Karhout said.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi presided over a meeting of senior security and military commanders to discuss the situation in Ramadi.
“His excellency gave orders to exert more efforts in the fighting against Daesh and in order to drive out the terrorist gangs from Ramadi,” said a statement posted on al-Abadi’s official website.
State-run Iraqiya television announced that new combat units have arrived in Ramadi.
Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have made steady gains against the IS group elsewhere in Iraq since last summer, when the U.S.-led coalition began striking the extremists from the air. Iraqi forces and Shiite militias recaptured the northern city of Tikrit from the IS group early last month, marking their biggest victory to date.
But progress has been slow in Anbar, a vast Sunni province where anger at the Shiite-led government runs deep and where U.S. forces struggled for years to beat back a potent insurgency. American soldiers fought some of their bloodiest battles since Vietnam on the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi.
U.S. troops were able to improve security in the province starting in 2006 when powerful tribes and former militants turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, a precursor to the Islamic State group, and allied with the Americans.
But the so-called Sunni Awakening movement waned in the years after U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, with the fighters complaining of neglect and distrust from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Associated Press/ My Way