RAMADI, Iraq, As Iraqi forces neared a total takeover of Ramadi from Isis control, the nation’s prime minister on Monday said the victory is the first in a series that will entirely chase the militant group out of the country in 2016.
Iraqi troops and counterterror squads on Sunday wrested the main government complex in Ramadi from IS control, where the militants had held an operational stronghold for seven months. Monday, the government forces neared completing a full retaking of the city — which would be viewed as a major blow to the terror group, also known as Daesh, which has steadily been losing territory recently in both Iraq and Syria.
“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,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a televised speech Monday.
“Daesh are running away now and all the city is under our control,” Iraqi Maj. Gen. Hadi Rzaig said.
The retaking of the government complex was aided by airstrikes led by a U.S. coalition. Following the victory, al-Abadi said government forces will next move on the nation’s second-largest city, Mosul.
“We are coming to liberate Mosul, which will be the fatal blow to Daesh,” the prime minister said.
The victories in Ramadi were applauded Monday by U.S. officials.
“While Ramadi is not yet fully secure and additional parts of the city still must be retaken, Iraq’s national flag now flies above the provincial government center and enemy forces have suffered a major defeat,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement. “The United States and the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL have proudly supported this effort with training, advice, and equipment, as well as precision airstrikes. That support will continue as the mission in Ramadi is completed and we prepare for post-conflict stabilization.”
One Iraqi official estimated that about 1,000 Islamic State militants were killed in the weeks leading up to Ramadi’s takeover.
The Pentagon and President Barack Obama, who remained on vacation in Hawaii Monday, reportedly praised the Iraqi military for its “courage and determination.”
“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 [ISIS] and other extremists, and facilitate the return of Ramadi’s citizens back to the city,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.
Ramadi appears to be the first major victory against IS by Iraq’s U.S.-trained army, and officials say taking Mosul would be a debilitating blow to the militant group — because it receives a great deal of revenue by taxing residents there.
Some officials, though, say there is still work to do to secure Ramadi — due to small remaining pockets of ISIS resistance and landmine-laden territories in the city militants still control.
“The fight there is far from over,” one U.S. official told NBC News. “Iraqi forces may still face heavy fighting within the next few days.”
By Doug G. Ware