Iraqi military forces on Monday retook a strategic government complex in Ramadi from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has occupied the city since May, military officials said — a symbolic victory that could help lift the morale of Iraq's beleaguered security forces as they battle to retake the rest of the city.
In a televised statement, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool initially announced that Ramadi has been "grabbed from the hateful claws" of ISIL and "fully liberated."
But Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, the head of military operations in Anbar province, quickly clarified that government forces had retaken only a strategic government complex and that parts of the city remain under ISIL control. The group's fighters have retreated from about 70 percent of city but still control the rest, and government forces don't fully control many of the districts from which the fighters have retreated.
"The troops only entered the government complex," Mahlawi told The Associated Press. "We can't say that Ramadi is fully liberated. There are still neighborhoods under their control, and there are still resistance pockets."
Iraqi state TV showed troops, some waving Iraqi flags and others brandishing machine guns, chanting and dancing inside what it described as the government complex. Some troops were seen slaughtering sheep in celebration near heavily damaged buildings.
Mark Kimmitt, a former U.S. assistant secretary of political and military affairs, said recapturing the city is just a small part of defeating ISIL.
"The Iraqi army has improved, but to take Mosul is going to take thousands and thousands of soldiers, and one question is whether those soldiers are ready at this point," he said.
The capital of Anbar province, Ramadi had been under the full control of ISIL fighters. The city and others in Anbar were the scenes of fierce battles between U.S. troops and ISIL's predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi delivered a speech in which he hailed the advance, saying it had killed "hundreds" of militants and "fulfilled the promise to defeat Daesh in Ramadi," referring to ISIL by its Arabic acronym. He said 2016 would be "the year of the final victory and the end of the existence of Daesh on Iraqi territory."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Iraqi forces for "displaying tremendous perseverance and courage."
Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman in Baghdad for the U.S. military, told The Associated Press that "today's success is a proud moment for Iraq."
"The clearance of the government center is a significant accomplishment and is the result of many months of hard work by the Iraqi army, the counterterrorism service, the Iraqi air force, local and federal police and tribal fighters," he said.
He added that the U.S.-led coalition has provided steadfast support to the Iraqi government, conducting more than 630 airstrikes, training security forces and providing advice and specialized engineering equipment to clear bombs and booby traps.
"The coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq as they move forward to make Ramadi safe for civilians to return and as the military moves to fight ISIL in other areas of the country," he continued.
The Iraqi military launched a long-promised campaign to retake the city, about 80 miles west of Baghdad, last week. Its progress had been hampered by snipers, booby traps and ISIL's destruction of all bridges leading into Ramadi.
The group controls swaths of land in western and northern Iraq and in neighboring Syria. ISIL has declared a caliphate in the territory it controls.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press
Correction: This article corrects an earlier version in which Mark Kimmitt was incorrectly quoted as saying it would take thousands and thousands of soldiers to take Ramadi. That has now been changed to read Mosul.