WASHINGTON (AP) — After months of preliminary skirmishes and hundreds of U.S. airstrikes, conditions are now right for Iraq to launch a decisive assault on Ramadi and reclaim the provincial capital from Islamic State fighters, a U.S. military official said Tuesday.
Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman in Baghdad for the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said Iraqi ground forces have advanced about nine miles in recent days and are in the city's outer suburbs. He said Iraqi F-16 fighter jets have recently joined the battle in support of Iraqi ground forces.
"Iraqi ground forces recently trained by the (U.S.-led) coalition have been deployed around Ramadi in time for the decisive phase of this operation," Warren said, referring to a counteroffensive that the Iraqi government announced in July but that has been stalled for numerous reasons, including the Islamic State's effective use of improvised land mines. The counteroffensive also has been weakened by sectarian divisions within the Iraqi government.
"We now believe that battlefield conditions are set for the ISF to push into the city," Warren added, using an acronym for Iraqi Security Forces, which collapsed in Ramadi in May, allowing the Islamic State to capture the Sunni city.
Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province.
The loss of Ramadi was the most damaging Iraqi setback this year against the Islamic State, which in 2014 captured the northern city of Mosul and still controls much of northern and western Iraq despite more than a year of U.S. airstrikes. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said after the Ramadi loss that it showed the Iraqi army had "no will to fight."
Since then the U.S. had stepped up its training of Iraqi forces and encouraged the Iraqi government to make a push into Ramadi.
Warren said the U.S. has intensified its airstrikes in the Ramadi area, launching 52 strikes over the past 10 days. He said the U.S. had conducted 292 airstrikes around Ramadi since the slow-moving counteroffensive began in July, and that these killed "hundreds" of Islamic State fighters. He said an estimated 600 to 1,000 IS fighters are now inside Ramadi.
Iraqi ground forces, including a contingent of Iraqi counterterrorism troops, have "essentially encircled the city," and are "squeezing in" from four directions, Warren said. He did not cite numbers, but others have said the Iraqis have about 10,000 troops committed to the battle.