“Ramadi has fallen,” Muhannad Haimour, a spokesman for Anbar province, said as Iraqi forces withdrew from the city “The city was completely taken. … It was a gradual deterioration. The military is fleeing.”
The U.S. Central Command pushed back against reports that Islamic State militants control the city and said Ramadi remains “contested.”
Ramadi, the provincial capital of the western Anbar province, is the latest battleground in the Iraqi government’s efforts to drive out Islamic State militants from areas the militants seized last year. With the help of U.S.-led airstrikes, the Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters had made gains against the Islamic State elsewhere in the country, including re-capturing the northern city of Tikrit.
Over the last month, 165 U.S.-led airstrikes had been conducted on Ramadi to assist Iraqi troops battling the Islamic State.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared on state television earlier Sunday and ordered his country’s security forces not to abandon their posts in Anbar province. He also ordered Shiite militias to go into the Sunni-dominated region, despite concerns of sparking sectarian violence, the Associated Press reported.
Athal al-Fahdawi, a member of the Anbar province council, said the Islamic State launched a large offensive Sunday and had taken control of most of the city after initially capturing government buildings late last week.
He said Iraqi forces withdrew to outside of Ramadi after holding onto two areas in the northern part of the city. That followed four bombings targeting police officers defending the southern district of Malaab, after which fierce fighting broke out, al-Fahdawi said. The attacks killed almost a dozen officers.
The Islamic State posted a message claiming its fighters held the entire city of Ramadi, the AP reported. The message, posted on a militant website frequented by the group, said the Islamic State held the 8th Brigade army base, as well as tanks and missile launchers left behind by fleeing soldiers.
Iraqi officials said they were waiting for more troops to arrive.
“Iraq authorities have sent reinforcements to Ramadi and are located in the outskirts of the city but didn’t engage till this moment with (Islamic State) militants,” Ramadi Mayor Dalaf al-Kubaisi said. “The Iraqi prime minster has sent special forces, but they are still waiting for more troops to start the clearing operation to kick the militants out of the city.”
Ramadi was largely evacuated after the Islamic State captured much of the city by Friday.
The offensive began after areas of the city fell under Islamic State control earlier this month. Last week, the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, targeted military positions in the city with six truck bombs and a bulldozer, described as a massive attack that overwhelmed Iraqi soldiers.
In recent days, the Pentagon has sought to downplay the significance of the gains the Islamic State made in Ramadi, while insisting the militant group was on the defensive in the north and west of Iraq compared to last year.
“We firmly believe (ISIL) is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria, attempting to hold previous gains, while conducting small-scale, localized harassing attacks, occasional complex or high-profile attacks, in order to feed their information and propaganda apparatus,” Brigadier Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters on Friday.
In neighboring Najaf and Karbala provinces, residents began shoring up their borders with Anbar province and deployed thousands of fighters of local militias into the desert, officials said.
At the same time, tribal leaders of Anbar province held a news conference Sunday in the town of Khalidiya demanding the government send more troops and fighters to secure the province.
Hakem al-Zameli, an Iraqi member of parliament, said he had concerns over sending militia fighters to Anbar province. “We could come under attack of (friendly fire),” he said.
The Iraqi military later issued a statement, saying, “Victory will be in the side of Iraq because Iraq is defending its freedom and dignity.” It did not offer any details about the ongoing fighting.