Iraqi government says it fully recaptured Ramadi from IS

AP News
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Posted: Feb 09, 2016 3:57 PM
Iraqi government says it fully recaptured Ramadi from IS

BAGHDAD (AP) — In an address to the nation Tuesday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi congratulated the Iraqi people on the liberation of Ramadi and the opening of a road connecting the western city to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Iraqi government forces regained full control of Ramadi after pushing Islamic State group fighters out of the city's outskirts, according to Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition. The announcement, more than a month after Ramadi was first declared liberated in December, underscores the slow nature of Iraqi ground operations despite heavy backing from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

In his national address, Abadi also called for a cabinet reshuffle to bring about "fundamental" changes that would appoint more professional and technocrats to ministerial positions.

Despite beginning the year on a high note with victories in Anbar, a worsening economic crisis and political missteps have left the Iraqi leader in an increasingly weakened position. Last week, Iraq's top Shiite cleric suspended his weekly political sermons, a move many interpreted as an expression of the religious leader's dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government's progress in bringing about reform.

Remarking on gains in Ramadi, the governor of Anbar province praised Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition for their work to liberate the city "completely," but was quick to emphasize that critical security and humanitarian issues remained. Violence has emptied Ramadi of civilians and much of the city remains blanketed in homemade bombs, also called improvised explosive devices or IEDs, which IS laid in retreat.

Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the coalition, told The Associated Press that Iraqi security forces have control of the whole city but "untold thousands" of improvised explosive devices were left behind.

Iraqi government troops, led by the country's elite counterterrorism forces, pushed IS out of the center of Ramadi in December, but struggled to take control of the city's outskirts. Explosives were a main factor that slowed the clearing of neighborhoods.

Now, Anbar's governor says the bombs are preventing civilians from returning home.

"The issue of IEDs is an extremely challenging one," Suhaib al-Rawi told reporters in Baghdad.

Iraqi forces allied with the government have clawed back pockets of territory from the extremist group in recent months, but destruction and insecurity in many of the "liberated" areas has prevented large-scale returns of civilians.

The U.S.-led coalition estimated last year that IS had lost 40 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq, but the United Nations estimates more than 3 million Iraqis remain internally displaced by violence, insecurity and destruction.

Efforts to clear Ramadi of explosives have been slowed by a lack of funding, Rawi said, explaining that Iraq's economic crisis has left the province in debt and entirely reliant on international aid donations to rebuild. An Initial assessment of destruction in Ramadi carried out by the U.N. last month said more than 4,500 buildings has been damaged or destroyed during the battle to reclaim the city.

"The level of destruction in Ramadi is as bad as anything we have seen in Iraq," said Lise Grande, the U.N.'s deputy special representative to Iraq. Iraqi and coalition officials estimate that rebuilding Ramadi could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Warren, the U.S.-led coalition spokesman, said despite the gains, the threat of counterattacks on Ramadi remains high. Just 50 kilometers (30 miles) to Ramadi's east, the city of Fallujah remains firmly under IS control more than two years after it fell to the group. The city is under siege by Iraqi government troops, but Iraqi officials say the northern city of Mosul is the government's next priority.

Iraq announced plans to send thousands of additional troops to a base outside Mosul on Monday in anticipation of an operation to liberate the city.

Ramadi fell to IS in May 2015 in the largest defeat for Iraq's military since Mosul fell in 2014. At the height of the group's strength, IS controlled more than a third of Iraqi territory before a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes began in August 2014.