Only Foreign Fighters Remain in ISIS's Last Stand For Ramadi

Iraqi security forces cross a bridge built by corps of engineers over the Euphrates in Ramadi, December 22, 2015. Reuters/Stringer

Only foreign fighters from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) remain in the city of Ramadi after local Sunnis, who helped the group capture the city in May, fled in the face of a large-scale Iraqi military offensive, the governor of Anbar's office told Newsweek late Tuesday.

The local Sunni population who aided ISIS's capture of Ramadi in May, acting as double agents and sleeper cells, have left the city and the remaining few hundred ISIS militants leading the resistance are from the group's international cohort, says Muhannad Hainour, special advisor and spokesman for Sohaib Alrawi, the governor of Iraq's largest province.

"The locals who have been involved with Daesh (an Arabic acronym for ISIS) have fled," he says by email. "Those left fighting inside the city are the foreign fighters."

He said that with the offensive placing the militant group on the back foot, the remaining foreign fighters have resorted to taking men hostage and are "preventing civilians from fleeing the city."

Iraqi authorities predicted earlier in December that Ramadi would be recaptured from the radical Islamist group by December 25 and Iraqi forces, backed by local tribesmen and U.S.-led air strikes, stormed the center of the city on Tuesday. Hainour says that the operation is "going according to plan and will result in a major victory," adding that the forces are "on track" to liberate Ramadi by Christmas.

But in a telephone press briefing on Tuesday, Colonel Steve Warren, the U.S. spokesman of the anti-ISIS coalition's Operation Inherent Resolve, was more cautious in his assessment of how long it will take to liberate the city from ISIS.

"There's still a long way to go before we can declare Ramadi completely clear," he said. "There is a lot of dense terrain here that needs to be negotiated."

The offensive on the city, located approximately 90 kilometers (55 miles) from Baghdad, is the final push to secure what would be the most significant victory for the Iraqi government since ISIS began capturing swathes of Iraqi territory starting in June 2014. Ramadi is a larger city, and in closer proximity to the capital Baghdad, than Tikrit, where many ISIS fighters fled before the city was liberated at the end of March.

ISIS militants have been embedded in Ramadi since May, in what was an embarrassing defeat for Haidar al-Abadi's coalition government, and forces who entered the city on Tuesday faced suicide bombers, snipers and booby-trapped buildings, Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service spokesman Sabah al-Numani told AFP news agency. Warren, the U.S. defense department spokesman, also warned that the city is a "very tightly packed" urban area with "narrow...winding roads."

The local Anbar government, in preparation for the liberation of the city, is "ready to move ahead and execute its stabilization plan," says Hainour, which includes installing electric generators and water pumps to allow displaced residents to return to their homes.

Elsewhere in Anbar, ISIS was issuing leaflets in the city of Fallujah ordering the group's fighters to dress as Iraqi security forces and "commit atrocities," according to a tweet Warren posted on Tuesday.

This year, ISIS has lost territory every month, with its caliphate dwindling by 14 percent, according to intelligence group IHS Jane's. Iraqi coalition forces ousted the group from the Baiji refinery and the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. Yet the loss of Ramadi delayed any plans of an Iraqi offensive on the ISIS-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq until at least next year.