BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces announced Tuesday that they had driven the Islamic State out of large parts of Ramadi in a campaign to retake the capital of Iraq’s largest province, seven months after the city’s fall to the extremist group.
The advance appears to be the latest in a string of successes by U.S.-backed ground forces battling IS at its strongholds in Iraq and Syria as a military coalition led by the United States supports them with air raids.
Iraqi officials said that counterterrorism forces and ground troops had regained control of Ramadi’s strategic Tamim neighborhood, including a military command center for Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital.
“Very soon, we will finish Ramadi,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an address on Iraqi television, predicting that the city would fall to his forces “in days.”
The gains signal new momentum for Iraqi forces in what had been a halting counteroffensive to retake a city whose capture this past May dealt a huge blow to Iraq’s government and the U.S.-led coalition that is targeting IS with airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
But Iraqi forces face significant challenges in attempting to expel the militants, who are deeply entrenched in a place that a decade ago was at the heart of a U.S.-supported Sunni rebellion against IS’s precursor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq.
Speaking by telephone from Ramadi’s recently seized army headquarters, Maj. Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, who leads the Anbar force, said that soldiers had removed IS’s black-and-white flag that flew over the facility and replaced it with an Iraqi banner.
“It’s a major victory today. Now we are in the center,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before we announce the liberation of the city.”
Gen. Mahlawi said that his forces had gained an upper hand in the battle but warned that scores of families were still trapped in the city.
Sabah Noori, a spokesman for Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, said the sprawling Tamim neighborhood had been cleared “entirely.” Special forces and soldiers had taken positions on top of buildings in the area, he said.
Suhaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar province, called on civilians to leave the city center immediately.
But areas still under IS control have been rigged with explosives and booby traps, potentially exposing civilians and Iraqi forces to lethal threats, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
Speaking by telephone, residents still in neighborhoods held by the extremist group described scenes of panic and fear.
One man said the militants have been threatening anyone attempting to flee. At the same time, he said, he also feared airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition that are targeting IS fighters.
“We are trying to leave right now, but [IS] militants are right out in front of our houses, and they are announcing on loudspeakers from mosques that people who leave will be considered apostates,” said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his family’s safety.
The group inflicts brutal punishment on those considered apostates, including public floggings and executions that involve crucifixions and beheadings.
“We are afraid that our houses will be bombed by airstrikes,” the man said. “There are hundreds of families trapped in the center of the city.”
The fall of Ramadi had derailed hopes of any impending assaults on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which IS militants captured as they stormed across the country during the summer of 2014.
Ramadi residents said Iraq’s Shiite-led government failed to support them with weapons and adequate defenses to secure the city, reflecting the festering sectarian feuds that have enabled IS to flourish in large parts of the country.
Still, Ramadi residents had resisted the extremist group’s incursions for months, and the city was one of the final areas of the largely Sunni Muslim province of Anbar to fall to IS.
When IS fighters finally entered, they killed scores of people deemed as collaborators with Iraq’s government and demolished homes, according to officials and residents at the time.