The Islamic State on Saturday consolidated its control over Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, whose capture by the militants on Friday marked the worst defeat for the Iraqi government since the fall of Mosul nearly a year ago.
Iraqi and local officials said Islamic State fighters were combing through neighborhoods in search of government employees and pro-government tribal fighters and were conducting summary public executions.
The mayor of Ramadi, Mohammed Kubaisi, told McClatchy by phone that some government soldiers and police had withdrawn to a northern suburb in hopes of holding out until promised reinforcements from Baghdad arrive. But as of Saturday evening, despite claims by government officials in Baghdad that fresh troops had been deployed, no reinforcements had arrived and the Islamic State was operating freely in the area, the mayor said.
“There are hundreds of families stuck inside Daash-held areas and they are being used as human shields against the coalition air strikes,” he said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State.
Kubaisi said Islamic State fighters had burned most of the government buildings they captured on Friday and then withdrew “out of fear of the American planes, which would easily be able to target government facilities.” But he said the withdrawal was simply a repositioning to safer locations and that the group controlled virtually all of Ramadi, a city with an estimated 500,000 inhabitants that until Friday was one of the last government-held areas in Anbar province. More than 1,300 U.S. soldiers and Marines lost their lives in Anbar during the U.S. occupation.
“There is no military operation to retake Ramadi,” Kubaisi said.
The Islamic State had been besieging the city since Janury 2014. It finally overwhelmed government positions in a blitz-like attack that began Thursday night with a series of suicide car bombings that forced Iraqi police and security forces to abandon their positions. In response to the blitz, which included armored bulldozers that cleared away government defensive barriers, the U.S. is rushing new shipments of shoulder-fired rockets to Iraq that a White House statement said would be especially useful against armored car bombs.
“Daash fighters have blocked anyone from leaving the area and are searching for government soldiers and tribesmen that have opposed them,” said one terrified local resident reached by phone. “They’re executing people in the streets, I have seen at least 20 myself and there are no government forces left in the main sections of the city. We have been abandoned to Daash.”
Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim told Iraqi state television that the U.S.-led coalition had been supporting Iraqi troops with “painful” airstrikes since late on Friday and that three regiments of Iraqi troops had been deployed to help retake the city, although witnesses throughout the area said those troops had yet to arrive.
U.S. Central Command, which leads the coalition air war against the Islamic State, said in a statement that it had conducted four airstrikes “near Ramadi” in the 24 hours that ended at 8 a.m. local time Saturday. Those strikes, the statement said, “struck one large and three small ISIL tactical units, destroying four ISIL vehicles, three ISIL structures, two ISIL fighting positions and an ISIL VBIED,” the acronym for vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, the military term for a car bomb. ISIL is the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
The statement listed 11 other airstrikes inside Iraq, including three near the town of Baiji in Salhuddin province, where an Islamic State offensive has trapped an estimated 200 Iraqi government troops inside the country’s largest oil refinery.
The other strikes in Iraq hit areas near Hawijah, about 30 miles south of Kirkuk, and near Mosul, Sinjar and Tal Afar, in northern Iraq, Centcom reported.