Iraq’s military fought its way into the centre of a key ISIL-held city on Tuesday in a major operation to oust the armed group that seized control of Ramadi in May.
The attack on the capital of Anbar province began on Tuesday morning, a spokesman for the army’s counter-terrorism unit told AFP news agency.
“We went into the centre of Ramadi from several fronts and we began purging residential areas. The city will be cleared in the coming 72 hours,” said Sabah al-Noman. “We did not face strong resistance, only snipers and suicide bombers and this is a tactic we expected.”
Ramadi is a crucial city in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and its capture by the group was seen as a major defeat, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan reported.
“It’s the biggest city in Iraq’s largest province and the heartland of the Sunni community of Iraq. It’s a big trading post for the country as well with roads leading into Jordan and Syria.”
Ramadi’s fall was the government’s biggest setback since ISIL fighters swept through areas in the country’s north and west – including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul – in the summer of 2014.
At the start of Tuesday’s offensive, ISIL mounted an attack with a suicide car bomber against soldiers and Shia militiamen gathered in Bu Dhiyab village north of Ramadi, killing 14 of them, military sources told Al Jazeera.
Another 17 soldiers and militiamen were wounded in the blast.
In a separate incident, at least eight civilians, including several children, were killed in a series of air strikes on a residential area north of Ramadi, the sources said.
Ramadi, about 120km from the capital Baghdad, was captured by ISIL in May, but the Iraqi forces have since managed to claw back some territory.
The army says it now controls more than half the city, including a key military command centre.
A US military spokesman predicted the capture of Ramadi by government troops was “inevitable”, but Colonel Steve Warren also said it’s going to be a “tough fight” that will “take some time”.
The US military says American advisers are still in place outside the city at a desert air base serving as a training site, according to the Associated Press.
ISIL fighters have had plenty of time to dig in since they took full control of the city on May 17 after blitzing government forces with wave after wave of car and truck bomb attacks.
The group built tunnels to move without being exposed to the coalition’s daily raids, but their supply lines were gradually all severed and military officials estimated last week there no more than 300 fighters left in the city.
The breakthrough came earlier this month when Iraq forces broke down ISIL defences and retook the key southwestern neighbourhood of Al-Tameem.
An Iraqi defence ministry spokesman said earlier that ISIL was preventing civilians from leaving Ramadi before the attack on the city.
Iraqi military planes on Sunday dropped leaflets on Ramadi asking residents to leave within 72 hours and indicating safe routes for their exit.