A buoyant Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said his forces will defeat the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the coming year, after the military claimed its first major victory since it was sent fleeing by the group 18 months ago.
Iraqi forces flew the national flag above the main government complex in Ramadi on Monday, declaring they had recaptured the city, a provincial capital west of Baghdad.
But there were still pockets of ISIL resistance in and around the city, the army said.
“2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when [ISIL’s] presence in Iraq will be terminated,” Abadi said in a speech.
“We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal and final blow to [ISIL].”
Mosul, northern Iraq’s main city, is by far the largest population centre in the self-proclaimed caliphate ISIL rules in Iraq and Syria.
The army’s capture of the centre of Ramadi, capital of the key Anbar province, marks a major milestone for US-trained forces who crumbled when ISIL fighters surged in June 2014.
In previous battles since then, Iraq’s armed forces operated mainly in a supporting role beside Iranian-backed Shia militias.
‘A significant step’
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.
US President Barack Obama, vacationing in Hawaii with his family, received an update on Monday on the Iraqi forces’ progress in Ramadi, the White House said.
“The continued progress of the Iraqi Security Forces in the fight to retake Ramadi is a testament to their courage and determination, and our shared commitment to push ISIL out of its safe-havens,” the White House said in a statement.
Congratulating the Iraqi government, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said: “The expulsion of ISIL by Iraqi security forces … is a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group.”
In a statement, Carter added: “Now it’s important for the Iraqi government … to seize this opportunity to maintain the peace in Ramadi, prevent the return of ISIL and other extremists, and facilitate the return of Ramadi’s citizens back to the city.”
American officials said the US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces had carried out more than 630 air strikes in the area over the past six months and provided training and equipment.
The US-led coalition, which includes major European and Arab powers, has been waging an air campaign against ISIL positions in both Iraq and Syria since a third of Iraqi territory fell to the fighters in mid-2014.