U.S.-led coalition air forces pounded positions held by ISIL in Ramadi on Thursday, Iraqi military statements said, in support of government troops seeking to retake the western Iraqi city and push on to drive the fighters from key population centers.
Warplanes from the coalition carried out 27 strikes against positions held by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the last district they hold in the center of the Sunni Muslim city, which lies on the river Euphrates some 60 miles west of Baghdad, according to a military statement on state TV.
The long-awaited drive to dislodge the fighters from Ramadi, the loss of which in May dealt a blow to government efforts to root out ISIL, started early on Tuesday.
Army commanders said Wednesday the battle would take several days. If captured, Ramadi would be the second major city after Tikrit to be retaken from ISIL. Success would provide a major psychological boost to Iraqi security forces after the group seized a third of Iraq in a sweeping advance last year. The group also controls a large part of neighboring Syria, where it has set up a de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Iraqi intelligence believe there are only a few hundred rebels left in Ramadi, but booby traps — containing explosive material capable of damaging 25-ton vehicles —have slowed their progress.
On Thursday, a number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) exploded on Al-Dhubaat Street in the city's south, killing 10 Iraqi troops and injuring another 16, military sources told Al Jazeera.
A day earlier, Iraqi government and military officials said they expected the Anbar provincial capital to be liberated within about 72 hours, but that target appears to have been pushed back.
Despite the setbacks, Iraqi officials remain confident.
"The plan is to encircle the areas and launch an attack from the center," Iraqi MP Mohammed Al-Ugaili told Al Jazeera.
"ISIL has lost the balance of power as it does not know which direction it's being attacked by Iraqi forces."
The control of major population centers in Iraq and Syria allows ISIL to maintain a revenue base, controlling oil resources and large, fertile agricultural areas, and possibly plan attacks outside its core territory.
Col. Mohammed Ibrahim, a spokesman for the War Media Cell, said on Wednesday the distance to the Ramadi government complex, the target building in the city center, is 1,700 meters (just over one mile), and the presence of civilians is slowing progress.
Progress has also been slow because the government wants to rely entirely on its own troops and not use Shia militias in order to avoid rights abuses such as occurred after the recapture of Tikrit from ISIL in April.
Local Sunni tribes have not been involved directly in the assault, but have been active in support activities across the province — a contrast to the U.S.-backed Tribal Awakening campaign 10 years ago when they united to drive Al-Qaeda elements from Anbar.
The ultimate aim for the government is to drive ISIL from Mosul, Iraq's largest northern city, and Fallujah, which lies between Ramadi and Baghdad, as well as large areas of Syria — the core of what it has declared to be its caliphate.