Despite reports from Iraq that militants on Friday captured the government center of the capital of Iraq’s largest province, a top U.S. military officer in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State insisted that the Islamist group is on the defensive and had not captured the city of Ramadi.
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, the chief of staff for the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, also denied that the United States had pulled its military advisers from the al-Habbaniyah military base near Ramadi, a city of a half million that has been under siege off and on by the Islamic State for nearly 18 months and saw some of the deadliest fighting during the U.S. occupation that ended in 2011.
Weidley acknowledged that Islamic State fighters had made “temporary gains in the east and south of the city,” but he rejected eyewitness reports that they’d raised their black flag over its main government building.
Using the Arabic name for the Islamic State, Weidley told Pentagon reporters in a telephone briefing: “We firmly believe Daash is on the defensive throughout Iraq.”
It was unclear where Weidley was located as he spoke. The Pentagon said only that he was “in Southwest Asia,” a broad area that includes Iraq and its Middle East neighbors.
An officer in the besieged Anbar Operations Center in Ramadi told McClatchy that Islamic State militants were expected to overwhelm the center in the next few hours, and other residents of Ramadi reported that government soldiers had fled south to a stadium where they hoped to be evacuated by air.
Residents said a victory statement from the Islamic State was being read from the city’s mosques, though Anbar’s governor, Sohaib al Rawi, also denied via Twitter that the Islamic State had seized Ramadi. “The situation in Ramadi is dire, but the city has not fallen, and the battle against criminal Daesh is ongoing,” he said in a tweet.
Capturing Ramadi, an industrial hub 80 miles west of Baghdad, would be a major victory for the Islamic State despite almost 2,000 U.S.-led airstrikes against the militants since last August.
Fierce fighting also continued to rage at the crucial Baiji oil refinery 135 miles north of Ramadi, where Weidley said “two batallion-sized” units of Iraqi soldiers – 200 to 400 troops – were trapped inside by several hundred Islamic State insurgents.
The Iraqi air force, assisted by U.S. special forces helping load relief packages at the Baghdad airport, had airdropped food, water and other supplies to the Iraqi troops inside the refinery, Weidley said.
CORRECTION: This version corrects Weidley’s position in Operation Inherent Resolve.
Jonathan S. Landay of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed