The American-backed Iraqi military forces have finally surrounded Ramadi, but ousting the hundreds of Islamic State fighters from the city is likely to be a tougher fight than the one U.S. troops faced there a decade ago, a defense official in Baghdad said.
"The isolation phase is complete. We're now moving into the clearing phase," Army Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, said Wednesday.
"They're essentially surrounding the city on its outskirts, kind of in the suburbs, if you will. But they are not yet into the city center," Warren told reporters in Washington in a briefing via satellite from a U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad.
The Iraqis last week seized the last key bridge over Ramadi's Euphrates River, which for months was under control of the Islamic State group and allowed the militants to use the river as a primary supply line.
The Islamic State force in Ramadi is estimated to be between 600 and 1,000 fighters, Warren said.
Yet the militants who have controlled the city for more than six months have set up a daunting defensive perimeter of mines, shooting positions and improvised explosive devices.
Warren said the Iraqi army and the Sunni tribal forces supporting them are facing a fight that will last longer than the 2006 U.S. operation involving soldiers and Marines battling insurgents then known as al-Qaida in Iraq.
"When the American military took Ramadi, it was a six-monthlong process. … And I would submit to you that [Islamic State] defenses inside of Ramadi now are more difficult than what we, the United States Army, faced years ago," Warren said. "It's a tough nut to crack."
American military officials have repeatedly expressed dismay about the Iraqis' slow progress in Ramadi.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter in May questioned the Iraqis' "will to fight."
And Iraq's sectarian politics have slowed the operation as the Shiite-run central government in Baghdad and the Shiite-led Iraqi army have been reluctant to provide money and weapons to the Sunni tribal forces that most people agree are needed for a long-term victory in Ramadi, a Sunni city.
Warren cautioned that the Islamic State militants may continue to receive some limited supplies into the city center.
"Isolated is not sealed," he said.
"There's no possible way to seal a city like that. There are, you know, three river entrances in and out. I mean, it's a complex city. You're never going to seal a city the size of Ramadi," Warren said.