Civilians Escape IS Grip as Iraqi Forces Push On in Ramadi

إقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية W460

Dozens of families the Islamic State group had been using as human shields in Ramadi escaped to safety Wednesday as Iraqi forces closed in on the jihadists' last redoubts.

A day after punching deep into the city center, forces led by the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) inched towards the governmental compound in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's vast Anbar province.

"The anti-terrorism troops are now poised to break into the Hoz area where the governmental compound is located," a brigadier general in the force told AFP.

Anbar officials said around 50 families managed to slip away during the fighting around the government compound.

"Ramadi residents who were held by Daesh (IS) in the city center escaped the siege and went towards the military units in Tal Mshahideh" in eastern Ramadi, provincial council spokesman Eid Ammash al-Karbuli said.

He said thew were mostly children, women and elderly men who raised white flags as they approached the security forces.

Another council official said a family of four were executed by IS on Monday as they tried to leave.

Ibrahim al-Fahdawi, who heads the security committee in Khaldiya, east of Ramadi, said the families numbered around 50.

They were fed and buses were being prepared to take them to a camp away from the frontlines, he said.

The recapture of the government compound would mark another key step towards reasserting full control over Ramadi, whose liberation a CTS spokesman said should be achieved by Friday.

- IS retreating -

Government forces, which have been supported by daily air strikes from the U.S.-led coalition, had to move carefully through the devastated city, whose deserted streets were littered with rubble and shrapnel.

Retreating IS fighters usually booby-trap their abandoned positions, plant roadside bombs and move in tunnels which can also be trapped with huge explosive charges.

Iraqi forces clearing residential neighborhoods in Ramadi were finding huge amounts of ammunition and explosives, including rockets made from gas canisters.

Officials estimated before the latest push into Ramadi that no more than 300 IS fighters remained holed up in the center.

"The fall of Ramadi is inevitable; the end is coming but... it's going be a tough fight," the U.S.-led coalition's spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said Tuesday.

Besides the rescued civilians, IS fighters were also believed to have fled Ramadi center to area further east along the Euphrates River valley.

"Dozens of Daesh members have withdrawn from the city center towards Sufiya and Sichariyah," said Fahdawi.

Iraqi forces said they had faced limited resistance when they first pushed in on Monday and Tuesday, although IS claimed responsibility for a deadly ambush in a northern neighborhood.

The recapture of Ramadi would further isolate IS-held Fallujah -- which lies half way on the road to Baghdad -- and undermine the viability of the group's self-proclaimed "caliphate."

Defense minister Khaled al-Obeidi said last week that successive operations by government for and their allies had shrunk IS territory in Iraq from roughly 40 percent of the country last year to 17 percent.

- 'Battle of attrition' -

Tuesday's big push into central Ramadi was only the latest step in a months-long operation, which saw Iraqi forces gradually close in after cutting off supply lines into Anbar and retaking neighborhoods, key roads and bridges one after the other.

"This has been a grinding battle of attrition. I think ISIS in Ramadi is exhausted. The city has been isolated for a while," said David Witty, a retired U.S. army special forces colonel and former adviser to CTS.

The slow pace of the Ramadi operation had triggered calls from some critics for a greater role for the Shiite-dominated Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces, or even U.S. troops.

But Baghdad largely stuck to its strategy, resorting to newly trained local forces from Anbar to move in and hold the ground reconquered by federal forces.

The loss of Ramadi in mid-May was Baghdad's worst defeat in the war against IS, and its recapture would provide a welcome morale boost to the country's much-criticized military.

"It could be symbolic in strengthening more local resistance in Anbar against ISIS, supported by Iraqi federal forces," Witty said.

The jihadist group, which swept through swathes of Iraq in early June 2014, still controls much of Anbar, which is Iraq's largest province and borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Government forces, allied Shiite militia and Kurdish peshmerga forces are also battling IS on other fronts.

The jihadist group still controls Mosul, Iraq's second city.

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