BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's military said on Friday its forces had advanced on three fronts to begin clearing Islamic State militants from the western city of Ramadi, which security forces have been encircling for months.
A municipal official and a police officer at a nearby military base, however, said the advance had not yet begun. Reuters could not independently verify the opposing accounts, due to insecurity and poor communication in the area.
Iraqi forces appeared better positioned than ever this week to launch an offensive on Ramadi, 100 miles (60 km) west of Baghdad, now that months-long efforts to cut off supply lines to the city are having an effect.
The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, to Islamic State in May was the biggest defeat for Iraq's weak central government in nearly a year, dampening its hopes of routing the Sunni militants from the country's north and west.
Retaking the city of 450,000 would provide a major psychological boost to Iraqi security forces, who have mostly collapsed in the face of advances by Islamic State, which last year seized a third of Iraq, a major OPEC oil producer and U.S ally.
It would also increase pressure on the jihadist group, which is facing multiple fronts in neighboring Syria and appeared to be largely pushed out of the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Thursday by Kurdish forces backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes.
The Iraqi forces began "their advance to liberate Ramadi ... from three directions: the west, the north and the southwest, supported by (the air force) who are currently striking selected targets," said a statement from joint operations command broadcast on state television.
The offensive has been impeded by heavy use of improvised explosive devices, inadequate troops and equipment due to government cash shortages, and stringent rules of engagement for U.S.-led air strikes, according to military and federal police officers involved in the battle.
(Reporting by Baghdad bureau; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Andrew Heavens)