The Islamic State (IS) militant group has overrun Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's western Anbar province, chasing the Iraqi forces out of the city despite the support of U.S.-led air strikes targeting the IS positions.
"Ramadi has fallen," said Muhannad Haimour, a spokesman for the governor of Anbar province, on May 17. "The city was completely taken. ... It was a gradual deterioration. The military is fleeing."
IS said in an Internet statement that it had full control of Ramadi.
"God has enabled the soldiers of the caliphate to cleanse all of Ramadi... after storming the 8th brigade. They [now] control it along with a battalion of tanks and missile launchers and in addition to the Anbar operations command," the IS statement said.
But the Pentagon said it was monitoring reports of continued fighting in Ramadi and that the situation remained "fluid and contested."
Defense Department spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said on May 17 that it was "too early to make definitive statements about the situation on the ground there at this time."
Earlier on May 17, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had ordered security forces not to abandon their posts across Anbar, and told Shi'ite militias to prepare to go into the Sunni-dominated province.
An video posted online showed Humvees, trucks, and other equipment purportedly speeding out of Ramadi, with Iraqi soldiers gripping onto their sides.
A police officer said retreating forces left behind about 30 army vehicles and weapons that included artillery and assault rifles.
Thousands of Ramadi residents have been fleeing the violence in the war-torn city.
Militants began their assault on Ramadi last week, sweeping through the city and seizing the main government headquarters and other key parts of the city on May 15.
The hasty and disorderly retreat recalled the collapse of Iraqi police and military forces last summer, when IS captured about one-third of Iraq in a lightining-fast push.
It also calls into question U.S. officials' hopes of relying solely on air strikes to support the Iraqi forces in expelling the extremists.
The U.S. military said American and allied forces have launched 18 air strikes against IS targets in Iraq over the past 24 hours, including seven near Ramadi.
Officials say an estimated 500 civilians and security forces have been killed since IS launched the attack on Ramadi, which has also triggered a massive wave of refugees.
The International Organisation for Migration said on May 17 that the fighting has displaced around 8,000 people in two days.
With reporting by AP, nyt.com, and Reuters