ISIL extremists control centre of Iraqi city
BAGHDAD// ISIL fighters seized the government compound in the Iraqi city of Ramadi on Friday, edging closer to what would be their biggest victory in the country this year.
The loss of the capital of Anbar province, which prime minister Haider Al Abadi had said would be the next target of government forces after wresting back the city of Tikrit last month, would be a major setback for Baghdad.
ISIL has threatened to take control of Ramadi for months and the breakthrough came after a wide offensive on several fronts in the province, including an assault using several suicide car bombs in Ramadi on Thursday.
The extremists seized the government complex at around 2pm local time and raised the black flag, a police major said, giving them nearly full control over Anbar’s capital.
ISIL “now occupies the government centre in Ramadi and has also raised its flag over the police HQ for Anbar,” the police major added.
The group itself issued a statement saying that its fighters had broken into the government complex, and blown up the adjacent buildings of Anbar’s governorate and police headquarters.
A senior tribal leader in charge of the coordination of local fighters with regular government forces also confirmed that the government complex had fallen.
“The only (government) forces still fighting are confined to a few pockets in Ramadi but they have no command post anymore,” said Sheikh Hekmat Suleiman.
Provincial council member Adhal Obeid Al Fahdawi had described the situation as “critical” moments earlier and said civilians were fleeing the city centre – the second time in a month they have done so following another ISIL offensive in April.
“Families are trying to flee on foot, leaving their cars and homes behind, but most areas around Ramadi are under IS control,” said tribal leader Sheikh Jabbar Adjadj Al Assafi, referring to the group by its self-declared acronym.
Earlier in the day, ISIL said it had carried out several attacks on army positions east of Ramadi, including one by a British suicide bomber it named as Abu Musa Al Britani.
“Another vehicle driven by our brother martyr Abu Khobayb Al Shami attacked the Al Majd police station near Al Haq mosque in Ramadi, followed by an assault that killed who was left,” the group said in its daily radio broadcast on Friday.
It also claimed to have killed 13 Iraqi soldiers in an attack on a hill east of Ramadi and executed 14 Sunni tribal fighters when it took over the central neighbourhood of Jamiya.
Iraqi security sources and ISIL said the town of Jubbah, about 180 kilometres north-west of Baghdad, had also been seized by the extremists.
A tribal leader said the town – which is near the large airbase of Al Asad where several hundred US advisers are stationed – had been left insufficiently protected.
Both sides also reported several attacks east of Fallujah since Thursday, just a few miles from the borders of Baghdad governorate. The outcome of these attacks remained unclear, however.
ISIL named its latest Ramadi operation after Abu Muhannad Al Swaidawi, a senior leader in Anbar who – according to extremist forums – was killed in a US-led air strike.
He is described as a former lieutenant of slain leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi who fought in both Fallujah battles against US forces in 2004.
Al Swaidawi is also described as the architect of a massive prison break in Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, which set 500 inmates free and is considered to be a key moment in the rise of ISIL.
The organisation’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke a six-month silence on Thursday with an audio recording of a speech in which he played up the Anbar battle.
ISIL, which also controls parts of Syria, swept across the Sunni heartland of Iraq last year before proclaiming a “caliphate” and drawing record numbers of foreign fighters.
A US-led air campaign launched in August helped the central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurds in the north turn the tide on the extremist group.
The militants have since lost significant ground but still hold Mosul, the country’s second city.
* Agence France-Presse