By Stephen Kalin and Saif Hameed
Iraq flew its flag above the main government complex in the western city of Ramadi on Monday, marking its military’s first major victory over Islamic State since the army collapsed in the face of the fighters’ shock advance 18 months ago.
Footage aired on state television showed a handful of soldiers approach a low-rise building and then emerge on its roof to hoist a small tri-colour banner above their heads.
“Yes, the city of Ramadi has been liberated. The Iraqi counter terrorism forces have raised the Iraqi flag over the government complex,” joint operations spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said in an earlier televised statement.
If the government retains control of Ramadi, which was seized by Islamic State fighters in May, it would become the first city recaptured by Iraq’s US-trained army since it fled from the hardline militants in June 2014. In previous battles since then, the Iraqi armed forces operated mainly in a supporting role beside Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
Soldiers were shown on state television on Monday publicly slaughtering a sheep in an act of celebration.
Gunshots and an explosion could be heard as a state TV reporter interviewed other soldiers celebrating the victory with their automatic weapons held in the air. A separate plume of smoke could be seen nearby.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for a US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces, said in a statement: “The clearance of the government centre is a significant accomplishment and is the result of many months of hard work.”
He said the coalition had provided more than 630 airstrikes in the area over the past six months as well as training, advice and equipment to the army, counter-terrorism forces and police.
The US-led coalition, which includes major European and Arab powers, has been waging an air campaign against Islamic State positions in both Iraq and Syria since mid-2014, after the fighters swiftly seized a third of Iraq’s territory.
The Iraqi army was humiliated in that advance, abandoning city after city and leaving fleets of American armoured vehicles and other weapons in the militants’ hands.
One of the main challenges of the conflict since then has been rebuilding the Iraqi army into a force capable of capturing and holding territory.
Baghdad has long said it would prove its forces’ rebuilt capability by rolling back militant advances in Anbar, the mainly Sunni province encompassing the fertile Euphrates River valley from Baghdad’s outskirts to the Syrian border.
After encircling the provincial capital for weeks, Iraqi forces launched an assault to retake it last week and made a final push to seize the central administration complex on Sunday. Their progress had been slowed by explosives planted in streets and booby-trapped buildings.
Security officials said the forces still need to clear some pockets of insurgents in the city and its outskirts.
Authorities gave no immediate death toll from the battle for the city. They have said most residents were evacuated before the assault.
Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters the capture of Ramadi was “a done deal” but said the government had to do more to rebuild the city and encourage displaced people to return.
“The most important thing is to secure it (Ramadi) because Daesh can bounce back,” he said in an interview in Baghdad, using an Arabic acronym to refer to Islamic State.
Iraq’s army took the lead in the battle for Ramadi, with the Shi’ite militias held back from the battlefield to avoid antagonising the mainly Sunni population. Washington had also expressed reluctance about being seen as fighting alongside the Iranian-backed groups.
Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, swept through northern and western 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.
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.
The Baghdad government says the next target after Ramadi is the northern city of Mosul, by far the largest population centre controlled by Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria. Washington had hoped that potentially decisive battle would take place in 2015 but it was pushed back after the fighters seized Ramadi.
The government, led by a Shi’ite Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has said Ramadi would be handed over to local police and a Sunni tribal force once it was secured, a measure aimed at winning over Sunnis to resist Islamic State.
Such a strategy would echo the US military’s ‘surge’ campaign of 2006-2007, which relied on recruiting and arming Sunni tribal fighters against a precursor of Islamic State. Anbar, including Ramadi, was a major focus of that campaign at the height of the 2003-2011 US war in Iraq.