Iraqi Forces Claim Ramadi Liberated From Islamic State
by VOA News, Ken Schwartz December 28, 2015
Jubilant Iraqi fighters raised the flag over the main government headquarters in the center of Ramadi Monday after saying they had recaptured the key city from Islamic State.
Iraqi soldiers waved their weapons as they danced and paraded through the streets of the capital of Anbar province, declaring the city liberated after seven months of Islamic State control.
Iraqi officials say the next step is to wipe out any pockets of resistance and clear Ramadi city and its surroundings of the countless mines and booby traps Islamic State left behind.
The number of dead and wounded on both sides was unclear and most civilians had taken cover inside a hospital.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came on Iraqi television to say 2016 will be the year Islamic State will be driven out of Iraq, saying the country's second city is the army's next target.
"We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal final blow to Daesh ( Islamic State )."
The United States, while hailing the success Iraqi forces have shown in Ramadi, stopped short Monday of declaring the city liberated.
"The continued progress of the Iraqi security forces in the fight to retake Ramadi is a testament to their courage and determination, and our shared commitment to push ISIL ( Islamic State ) out of its safe-havens," the White House said.
Just as the White House did, Defense Secretary Ash Carter would only call Monday's developments in Ramadi "progress" in retaking the city.
Secretary of State John Kerry said "the Iraqi military is fighting with determination, courage, and skill to dislodge the enemy and bring closer the day when the city can be returned to the families who have fled the terror of ISIL."
Islamic State seized Ramadi in May and retaking the city has been a major focus of Iraqi forces.
Months of planning
After months of preparation, Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes pushed into Ramadi's center last week in a concerted effort to recapture the city.
The U.S. military said it carried out at least 29 airstrikes on IS targets in the past week; three airstrikes hit near Ramadi from Sunday into Monday, wounding 12 IS fighters.
Col. Steve Warren, U.S. spokesman for the anti-IS military operation, said that since May, the coalition had launched 630 airstrikes in and around Ramadi and trained some of the Iraqi forces that took the city back.
Amid the gains in Anbar province for government forces, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed Monday to defeat Islamic State throughout the country in 2016.
"If 2015 was a year of liberation, 2016 will be the year of great victories, terminating the presence of Daesh (IS) in Iraq and Mesopotamia," he said in a televised address.
City in ruins
Video of Ramadi's city center and other nearby districts showed widespread destruction, and many neighborhoods appeared to be in ruins.
One military commander told state TV that IS militants had booby-trapped many buildings and attacked his men with car bombs.
Gen. Abdel Ghani Al Assadi says that his men made sacrifices and many gave up their lives in the bitter battle against Islamic State, which hit them with car bombs, mines and by rigging buildings.
James Denselow of the London-based Foreign Policy Center tells VOA that the success of the Ramadi operation will be measured by whether Sunni residents return to the city:
"Ultimately, for Sunni residents to come back, they need to feel that there is a force there that will protect their interests. (That) there's no victor's justice. ... All these other things we've seen in the past in other liberated cities, and there are a huge number of different armed groups operating under different flags in Iraq at the moment, and that's not good for a united Iraq," he said.
Iraqi commanders now are setting their sights on retaking Iraq's second largest city of Mosul from IS.
But Denselow warns that the fact that "a relatively small number of ISIS fighters have been able to fend off a much larger force for so long with such a large level of destruction is a worrying portent of things to come."
VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin in Washington and Ed Yeranian in Cairo contributed to this report.
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