Islamist militants have taken over the capital of Iraq’s largest province, dealing a blow to US-backed efforts to halt the spread of the extremist group.
Hundreds of government troops were killed as the jihadists swept into the western city of Ramadi after three days if fighting, Reuters reported Monday.
It’s the biggest military victory this year for militants and builds on territory it already controls in Iraq and Syria.
The defeat for government forces came as they stepped up a campaign to push the militants out of Anbar province, the country’s Sunni heartland.
“Ramadi, by military standards, has completely fallen to Daesh,” said Taha Abdul Ghani, a member of Anbar’s provincial council, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Abdul Ghani said police and security forces were ordered to withdraw completely from the city to prevent mass casualties.
Local security officials said Islamic State squeezed government forces out of their last post in Ramadi, an operations command center, on Sunday.
Hundreds of security forces and tribal fighters left Ramadi on Sunday. Some said they stepped over dead bodies of their comrades as they fled.
The stuation prompted Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to call the country’s largely Shiite paramilitary force into the Sunni province, a controversial decision given the country’s simmering sectarian tensions and concerns over further empowering Iranian-backed militias.
“We were pushed into a corner,” a government official said of the decision to deploy the militias to Anbar. “This is not the first choice for many people in Anbar.”
In Washington, US officials were not prepared to declare the city a loss to Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the self-declared Islamic caliphate.
Instead, they cast the militant advances as part of a months-long seesaw battle in Anbar province.
“ISIL seems to have the advantage,” said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
“They will use this for the own propaganda purposes but it doesn’t give them a significant tactical advantage.”
Col. Warren said the entry of Shiite militias into the fight—as announced by Prime Minister Abadi—may have a bearing on the eventual outcome as the situation still remains fluid.
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