BAGHDAD: 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 the militant Islamic State (IS) group 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 IS 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 Shia 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 air strikes 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 IS 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 said 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 IS.
Iraq’s army took the lead in the battle for Ramadi, with the Shia 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.