The Iraqi military said Monday that its forces have recaptured the main government complex in Ramadi from Islamic State fighters who have occupied the city since May, providing a strategic victory and a morale boost to the country’s struggling security forces.
Anti-terrorism troops hoisted the national flag atop the key complex in the long-contested Sunni Muslim city west of Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, Iraqi joint operations spokesman, said in a televised statement.
Rasool claimed that Ramadi had been fully liberated. However, Maj. Gen. Ismail Mahalawi, head of operations in Iraq’s western Anbar province, later told reporters that the militants still controlled parts of the city. Fighting was reported in downtown Ramadi as well as in some communities on the city’s eastern and northern outskirts.
The recapture of Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital and its most populous city, would be the most significant in a series of recent successes by the Iraqi forces, which collapsed in the face of rapid Islamic State advances in mid-2014. Since the spring, the militants have been driven from the northern cities of Tikrit and Baiji, as well as Sinjar, a northwestern town near the Syrian border.
But defense experts caution that it is too soon to speak of a turning point in the struggle against Islamic State. The group still controls large stretches of Iraq and neighboring Syria, including most of the rest of Anbar and the large, densely populated city of Mosul in the north of Iraq.
“It’s a good tactical victory,” said Ben Connable, a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer who served three tours in Iraq before joining the Rand Corp., a think tank. “But really, we are just back to where we were six months ago. So to paint this as a strategic victory against Islamic State I think is a gross exaggeration.”
The seizure of the government compound in Ramadi followed a week of intense fighting as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s forces pressed into the center of the heavily defended city after seizing ground on the periphery.
All the bridges leading into Ramadi had been destroyed before the advance began, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Barriers had been erected in every street and the ground seeded with explosives. There were also sniper nests and mortar batteries to contend with, they said.
“The clearance of the government center is a significant accomplishment and is the result of many months of hard work,” Col. Steven Warren, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in a statement.
He said the U.S.-led coalition, which includes major European and Middle Eastern powers, had carried out more than 630 airstrikes in the area, provided training and advice to Iraqi units, and contributed specialized equipment to clear explosives.
Iraqi state television broadcast footage of Iraqi troops celebrating inside the government compound Monday. Some could be seen slaughtering a sheep, while others raised their weapons and danced.
“Now will be a process of going block by block ... clearing out booby traps and clearing out small pockets of resistance,” Warren told The Times. “That could take time. Ramadi is a fairly large, densely populated center. Every house is a potential bomb.”
The city could provide an important base of operations for Iraqi forces as they attempt to recapture other parts of the fertile Euphrates River valley, which stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad to the Syrian border, and press north toward Mosul.
However, U.S. defense officials said Monday’s victory was as important symbolically and politically as it was militarily.
“The fight for Ramadi demonstrates how capable, motivated local forces backed by coalition air support and training can defeat ISIL,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “Now it’s important for the Iraqi government, working with provincial and local authorities, to seize this opportunity to maintain the peace in Ramadi, prevent the return of ISIL and other extremists, and facilitate the return of Ramadi’s citizens back to the city.”
The United States and the coalition have pledged more than $50 million to a United Nations Development Program fund to support efforts to rebuild and stabilize areas seized from Islamic State, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement.
Part of Islamic State’s strength has been its ability to recruit foreign fighters who are eager to join the group’s self-declared caliphate. That may be harder to do when the caliphate is contracting rather than expanding, according to Stephen D. Biddle, a defense policy expert at George Washington University.
“This isn’t the first time they have lost real estate, but it’s the first time they have lost a major city,” Biddle said.
The militant group did not appear to be conceding a defeat. An Islamic State-affiliated website known as Minbar on Monday dismissed Iraqi claims of having liberated the Ramadi government complex, saying the group’s forces had destroyed the facility months ago.
Still, the gradual loss of territory will dent Islamic State’s tax base, one of the main sources of revenue for the extremists, Biddle said. That in turn could erode the group’s ability to conduct military operations and lead to further territorial losses. But he said he would be surprised if this happens quickly.
“It won’t look like a blitzkrieg,” he said.
Connable noted that the Iraqi government has been relying heavily on its counter-terrorism service, an elite force that has proved effective in battle but does not have the numbers to secure territory it has seized while conducting new operations elsewhere.
In Anbar province, the Iraqi government is planning to tap Sunni tribal fighters who have received training from the coalition while efforts are underway to build up the local police force, Warren said.
The U.S. military used the strategy effectively when it was battling Islamic State’s precursor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. But Connable said the number of Sunnis now willing to side with the Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad is a fraction of what it was during the last decade.
He praised Abadi’s decision not to use Iranian-backed Shiite militias that have proved to be a potent force elsewhere in the country but have been accused of revenge attacks against Sunnis. However, he questioned whether Sunni tribal fighters and regular Iraqi soldiers would stand up to any renewed attacks from Islamic State — a persistent problem in areas freed from the militants.
“Just because ISIL has been pushed out of Ramadi for now doesn’t mean they won’t be back,” Connable said.
Hassan is a special correspondent. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.