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Ramadi 'liberated' from Islamic State group, says Iraq

Ahmad al-Rubaye, AFP | An Iraqi soldier in battle-scarred Ramadi, west of the capital Baghdad, on December 27, 2015

Iraq’s army declared victory over Islamic State (IS) group fighters in a provincial capital west of Baghdad on Monday, marking its first major triumph since it collapsed in the face of an assault by the militants 18 months ago.

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Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said the capital of Anbar province, west of the capital Baghdad, had been "fully liberated" from IS militants and that the Iraqi flag had been raised over the government complex.

But another senior comander, General Ismail al-Mahlawi, quickly cautioned that parts of the city remained under IS group control.

The jihadist fighters seized the city in May after government troops fled in a defeat which prompted Washington to take a hard look at strategy in its ongoing air war against the militants.

After encircling the city for weeks, the Iraqi military launched a campaign to retake it last week, and made a final push to seize the central administration complex on Sunday.

The US-led anti-IS coalition praised the performance of the Iraqi forces in retaking Ramadi, an operation in which it played a significant role, training local forces, arming them and carrying out what it said were 600 air strikes since July.

French President François Hollande called the liberation of Ramadi the "most important victory yet" in the fight against the jihadists.

State television broadcast footage of troops, Humvee vehicles and tanks advancing through Ramadi streets amid piles of rubble and collapsed houses. Some districts appeared to have been completely destroyed by the advance.

‘Most civilians evacuated before assault’

Television also showed nighttime celebrations in mainly Shiite cities south of Baghdad for the victory in Anbar, with people dancing in the streets and waving Iraqi flags from cars.

Officials did not give any immediate death tolls for the battle. The government says most civilians were able to evacuate before it launched its assault.

'OPERATIONS ONGOING, IS GROUP USING HUMAN SHIELDS'

Anbar provincial council member Falih al-Essawi called on the government to restore services to Ramadi quickly and start rebuilding the city to allow the return of the displaced.

“It will not be easy to convince families to return to a city that lacks basic human needs,” he told Reuters.

The IS group, also known by the acronyms ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, swept through a third of Iraq in June 2014 and declared a “caliphate” to rule over all Muslims from territory in both Iraq and Syria, carrying out mass killings and imposing a draconian form of Islam.

Its rise was aided by the swift collapse of the Iraqi army, which abandoned city after city, leaving fleets of armoured vehicles and other American weapons in the fighters’ hands.

Since then, the battle against the group in both countries has drawn in most global and regional powers, often with competing allies on the ground in complex multi-sided civil wars.

A US-led coalition is waging an air campaign against the IS group, but rebuilding the Iraqi army to the point that it could recapture and hold territory has been one of the biggest challenges.

In previous battles, including the recapture of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s home city Tikrit in April, the Iraqi government relied on Iran-backed Shiite militias for ground fighting, with its own army mainly in a supporting role.

Complete control

Ramadi was the first major city recaptured without relying on the Shiite militias, who were kept off the battlefield to avoid sectarian tension with the mainly Sunni population.

The government, led by a Shiite Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, said Ramadi would be handed over to local police and a Sunni tribal force once it was secured, a measure meant to win over the community to the fight against Islamic State.

“We have trained hundreds of tribal fighters, their role will be holding the ground,” said Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command.

#شارع40 الاناحتفالات قوات الامن والحشد الشعبيبالانتصار العظيم ممباااارك لكم تحرير الرمادي

Posted by Ayman Basil on Sunday, 27 December 2015

“Seeing their own tribes responsible for security will be a relief for the civilians” and will help convince those who have been displaced to return to the city, he added.

The strategy echoes the “surge” campaign fought by US forces in 2006-2007 against a precursor of the IS group, when Washington also relied on winning over local Sunni tribes and arming them to fight militants. Anbar province, including Ramadi, was one of the main battlefields during that campaign at the height of the 2003-2011 Iraq war.

The government said the next target after Ramadi will be the northern city of Mosul, by far the largest population centre controlled by IS militants in either Iraq or 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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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