Baghdad // Iraqi forces on Sunday took control of the government complex in central Ramadi, the last ISIL stronghold in the western city, securing their biggest victory over the extremist group that has captured large areas of the country.
“By controlling the complex this means that they have been defeated in Ramadi,” said Sabah Al Numani, a spokesman for the elite counter-terrorism service force leading the battle for the city.
“The complex is under our complete control, there is no presence whatsoever of Daesh fighters in the complex,” he said.
“The next step is to clear pockets that could exist here or there in the city.”
He said a major clearing effort was needed to allow forces to move in because ISIL rigged the entire area with roadside bombs and booby traps.
Though there was no official declaration of victory, people were already celebrating on the streets of several Iraqi cities.
After months of preparation, Iraqi forces backed by US-led coalition air strikes punched into the centre of Ramadi last Tuesday, in a final push to retake the city they lost in May.
The fighting over the past two days had been concentrated around the government complex, whose recapture had become synonymous with victory in the battle for Ramadi.
According to medical sources in Baghdad, 93 members of the security forces were brought in with injuries on Sunday alone.
“The dead bodies are taken directly to the main military hospital” near the airport, said one source.
At least five government fighters have been killed over the past two days alone, but there has been no official overall toll for the operation.
Estimates a week ago were that ISIL had around 400 fighters to defend central Ramadi, many of them protecting the government compound.
Those numbers were thought to have declined drastically on Friday and Saturday, with several fighters retreating from the main battle and dozens of others killed in fighting or in suicide attacks.
Ali Dawood, the head of the neighbouring Khaldiya council, said ISIL fighters used civilians as human shields to slip out of the government complex.
“Daesh fighters forced all the families living around the compound to go with them in order to flee towards Sichariyah, Sufiya and Jweiba” on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi, he said.
He had said on Saturday that more than 250 families had managed to escape the combat zones since the start of the operation and had been escorted to safety by the army.
Some of them were in camps with other displaced people in Anbar province, while others headed to Baghdad or the northern autonomous Kurdish region.
According to the International Organization for Migration, people from account for more than a third of the 3.2 million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes since January 2014.
Ramadi lies about 100 kilometres west of Baghdad and is the capital of Anbar, which is Iraq’s largest province and borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
A victory there would help boost Iraq’s much-criticised military, which collapsed when ISIL took over large parts of the country in June last year.
Government forces held off months of ISIL assaults in Ramadi until May, when the extremists broke through with massive suicide car bombs and seized full control of the city.
The fightback has often been laborious and poisoned by political wrangling, but defence minister Khaled Al Obeidi said a week ago that Iraqi forces had reclaimed half of the territory lost to ISIL last year.