Six weeks after the Iraqi government declared victory in Ramadi, the Iraqi army has finally seized control of the entire city — but U.S. airstrikes continue to target small teams of Islamic State militants that remain in the area mounting insurgent attacks, a defense official said Wednesday.
"The Iraqi security forces really control all of Ramadi proper," Army Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesmen for the American-led coalition in Iraq, told reporters Wednesday.
On Dec. 29 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi planted the national flag in Ramadi's city center, but the Iraqi forces continued block-by-block clearing operations, targeting the remnants of Islamic State militants, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
This week, Iraq's elite counterterrorism service completed those clearing operations, Warren said.
But "untold thousands" of booby-trapped homes and improvised explosive devices remain and Iraqi forces continue to see pockets of Islamic State militants, Warren said.
"We do see small teams, really teams, two- or three-person teams of ISIL fighters conducting these kind of harassing attacks, or terrorist attacks — they are terrorists — you know, throughout Ramadi," Warren said.
"They have a very simple goal: What they want to do is tie up Iraqi security forces as long as possible. … They will send in some sort of harassing attack, whether it's one person wearing a suicide vest, or somebody driving a truck bomb or a car bomb, or just a two-man team with [a rocket-propelled grenade] and an AK [assault rifle], just to slow down the process, to slow down the Iraqi security forces' ability to make Ramadi safe," Warren said.
Among the roughly 3,700 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq, hundreds are in Anbar province but their mission is typically limited to training and advising the Iraqi forces from inside the perimeter of two military installations, Al Asad Air Base and Taqaddum Air Base.
Many military officials say the next phase of the Iraqis' fight in Anbar province will be to move westward along the Euphrates River to oust ISIS from the cities of Haditha and Hit. Yet operations in Anbar beyond Ramadi have been limited during the past couple of weeks.
Most of the Iraqi forces in Anbar are in a "combat-power regeneration phase," Warren said.
U.S. airstrikes near Ramadi continued this week. On Monday, four strikes hit an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed two fighting positions, a heavy machine gun position and a truck-bomb factory and cratered a road used by ISIS, defense officials said.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said recently that it's unlikely the U.S. and Iraqi forces will soon dislodge ISIS from its hold on parts of Anbar province near the Syrian border.
Stewart testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and responded to a lawmaker's question about how Iraq and ISIS will look at the end of the year.
"We consolidate our gains in Ramadi ... begin to move … from Hit up to Haditha. … But in the western part of Iraq, I'm not optimistic that we will have done much to move ISIL forces out of that region," Stewart said.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.