BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces said Sunday that they had captured the main government compound in Ramadi, a symbolic win in a key city that has been under Islamic State control for seven months.
Engineering teams were still working to clear explosive devices in the area, but the complex was entirely under the control of Iraqi forces, military commanders said. Still, much of the city’s downtown remains in the hands of the militants, Iraqi officials said.
Backed by a barrage of U.S. airstrikes, Iraqi forces have been making steady progress in the western city in recent weeks, but they have been slowed by booby traps and by efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
The battle for Ramadi, about 80 miles west of Baghdad, is a significant test for Iraqi forces, which collapsed during an assault by the militants in May. The city was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting for U.S. military forces during the Iraq war, when they engaged in street battles with Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda.
Although it holds limited strategic value, the government compound is in the heart of the city’s downtown and houses its administrative buildings.
“The compound has been liberated,” said Suhaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital. He said Iraqi forces were now advancing from the south and west to close in on the remaining militant-held neighborhoods.
Sabah Noori, a spokesman for the Iraqi special forces, confirmed that counterterrorism forces had taken control of the complex.
There was a celebratory atmosphere in Baghdad, where state television showed images of people dancing and letting off fireworks as they waved the Iraqi flag in the streets.
Some Iraqi commanders have said that they expect Ramadi to be entirely back under their control by the end of the year, but large neighborhoods are yet to be secured. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that after the city is recaptured, Iraqi forces will turn their attention to Mosul, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq.
“We are congratulating the Iraqi security forces for their significant progress in Ramadi,” said Army Col. Chris Garver, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition-led against the Islamic State. “We also know the fight for Ramadi isn’t over, and there is still more hard work to do.”
The Iraqi military is attempting to repair its tattered reputation after defeats last year by the Islamic State, which seized about a third of the country. The military and pro-government forces have slowly clawed back land, but the fight for Ramadi is the first major battle in which Iraq’s powerful Shiite militia groups have largely been excluded, because of concerns about their presence in the largely Sunni city. That has allowed military forces a chance to prove that they can go it alone. Sunni tribal forces also have been used for the offensive, but largely for holding territory as it is retaken.
Brig. Gen. Hamid al-Fatlawi, commander of the Iraqi army’s 8th division, said that Iraqi forces had seen limited direct combat around the complex, but that the Islamic State had used suicide bombers and car bombs to try to fend off the assault before its militants fled.
The extremists had left explosives throughout the compound, he said.
“Even the cats walking in the street might be booby-trapped,” he said. “It’s their method of fighting.”
He said roadside bombs were strung together in “networks” that can take hours to defuse.
About three or four soldiers have been killed every day since Iraqi forces launched their final push for the city, he said, largely by snipers and suicide bombers.
The U.S. military carried out at least 29 airstrikes between Dec. 20 and Dec. 26 in and around Ramadi, with more on Sunday, U.S. officials said. The strikes on Saturday destroyed vehicles operated by the militants, along with a factory used to make vehicle-borne suicide bombs and two houses that were rigged with explosives, according to statements released by the U.S.-led coalition.
Also targeted in the past few days were several militant sniper positions and locations used to launch rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire at troops,according to statements from the coalition.
In 2006, when U.S. troops battled for control of Ramadi, the government compound was a key focus of fighting.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Graham Platner, who fought from the government center at that time, has watched the ongoing Iraqi campaign to retake the city from the Islamic State.
“I suppose the most frustrating thing is to watch these Iraqis have to fight their way back into a building that was once the bastion of U.S. and Iraqi government power in Anbar,” Platner said. “A decade later and these [Iraqi security forces] cats are spilling blood in the same streets against the same guy[s].”
Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Belawi, an Iraqi police commander, said the remainder of Ramadi would take “a few days” to clear.
But some officials have expressed doubt that the city can be secured that quickly.
“It will take a long time to completely liberate the city,” said Eid al-Karboly, a spokesman for the provincial council of Anbar. He said that about 75 percent of central Ramadi was still under control of the militants, including neighborhoods such as Mallab, where civilians are still thought to remain. This has complicated the U.S. airstrike campaign, which has played a major role in the advance of Iraqi forces.
“The enemy’s snipers are based on the roofs of houses with families,” said Maj. Gen. Ismail Mahlawi, the head of Anbar Operations Command. “Therefore, we can’t target them by airstrikes, which means it’s going to take some time.”
Brett McGurk, a special presidential envoy to the U.S.-led coalition, said in a tweet on Sunday that airstrikes will continue until other areas are liberated.
“Our air coalition is proud to support brave Iraqi troops as they defeat ISIL in Ramadi,” he tweeted, using an alternative acronym for the militant group. “Support will continue until all areas are liberated.”
Even after the city is recaptured, other big challenges remain, with as much as 80 percent of the homes damaged, according to Karboly. Rawi, the Anbar governor, said some areas were hit harder than others.
“All the infrastructure of the city has been destroyed,” Karboly said. “It will take years to return life to the city.”
Morris reported from Beirut. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.