The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group has taken over the main government compound in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, and edged closer to what would be their biggest victory in Iraq this year, officials have said.
The fighters seized the government complex at around 1100GMT on Friday and raised the group’s black flag, capping an offensive launched a day ago, a police officer said.
ISIL “now occupies the government centre in Ramadi and has also raised its flag over the police HQ for Anbar,” the police major told the AFP news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The group itself issued a statement in which it said its fighters “broke into the Safavid government complex in the centre of Ramadi”.
The operation “resulted in the control of it after killing the ‘murtadeen’ then blowing up the adjacent buildings of Anbar’s governorate and the Safavid Anbar police HQ.”
Safavid is a term used by ISIL in a derogatory way to refer to government forces and “murtadeen” designates Sunni tribal fighters battling alongside the government.
A senior tribal leader in charge of the coordination of local fighters with regular government forces also confirmed the government complex had fallen.
“Daesh has managed to take over the provincial council and they have raised their flag,” Sheikh Hekmat Suleiman told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
“The only (government) forces still fighting are confined to a few pockets in Ramadi but they have no command post anymore,” he said.
However, Al Jazeera’s Osama Mohamed, reporting from Iraq’s capital Baghdad, said that “there are still two neighbourhoods and a main army command centre in and around Ramadi in the hands of government forces”.
He also noted the Iraqi army helicopters have been striking several parts of the government compound in an attempt to regain control over it from ISIL.
Provincial council member Adhal Obeid al-Fahdawi had described the situation as “critical” moments earlier and said civilians were fleeing the city centre, the second time in a month they have done so following another ISIL offensive in April.
“Families are trying to flee on foot, leaving their cars and homes behind, but most areas around Ramadi are under ISIL control,” said Sheikh Jabbar Adjadj al-Assafi, a tribal leader.
The loss of the capital of Anbar province, which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had said would be the next target of government forces after wresting back Tikrit last month, would be a major setback for Baghdad.
ISIL has threatened to take control of Ramadi for months and the breakthrough came after a wide offensive on several fronts in the province, including an assault using several suicide car bombs in Ramadi on Thursday. Al Jazeera