WASHINGTON — At least 60 Islamic State militants were killed in Ramadi on Wednesday, as Iraqi security forces worked to clear neighborhoods to the north and west of its city center, a U.S. military spokesman said.
Small bands of the militants remain in the city just more than a week after Iraq’s government declared the months-long operation to reclaim the Anbar Province capital a victory. Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service, the unit that led the assault on the city held by the Islamic State group since May 2015, have encountered improvised bombs, small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire as they have worked to methodically clear the city of militants and the booby traps that they left behind, Army Col. Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon.
“We see these squad-sized (Islamic State group) elements able to operate in some of the neighborhoods that have not been cleared,” Warren said. “As we see them, we strike them. As the Iraqi security forces see them, they attack them… There’s still more work to be done.”
Warren declined to say how long it would take the Iraqi forces to fully clear the city.
Much of the city has been cleared as the Counter Terrorism Service works east to west through the city, stabilizing those regions. Sunni tribal fighters – groups of locals trained to hold and defend the city from future attacks – and local police have moved in to those areas, Warren said.
The clearing process has been intentionally slow as Iraqi forces have worked to rescue civilians remaining in Ramadi and to dismantle explosives “almost house-by-house” in the compactly constructed city, Warren said.
The United States has continued to support Iraqi troops with airstrikes. On Wednesday, it conducted eight strikes in Ramadi, destroying four Islamic State tactical units, heavy weaponry, vehicles and buildings, according to an Operation Inherent Resolve statement. The strikes followed four coalition attacks Monday and Tuesday.
Warren said it was not clear exactly how many Islamic State militants remained in Ramadi. The group has used tunnels to move undetected. It launched assaults with suicide truck bombs along the city’s outskirts over the weekend, but it has been unable to reclaim territory lost to government forces in recent weeks.
“The Iraqi security forces have the initiative,” Warren said, adding the Islamic State group has lost about 22,000 square miles of territory in Iraq since May 2015.
“We believe that (the Islamic State group) is now in a defensive crouch,” he said. “Long ago, probably in May is when they reached their culminating point of offensive operations. Since then, all they’ve really managed to do is lose ground.”