The United States has hailed Iraqi forces' advance in the retaking of Ramadi, after Iraqi officials declared earlier on December 28 that troops had recaptured the city from Islamic State (IS) militants.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said "the expulsion of [IS] by Iraqi security forces…is a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group."
He called on the Iraqi government to "seize this opportunity to maintain the peace in Ramadi, prevent the return of [IS] and other extremists, and facilitate the return of Ramadi's citizens back to the city."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Iraqi forces for "displaying tremendous perseverance and courage."
"While Ramadi is not yet fully secure and additional parts of the city still must be retaken, Iraq's national flag now flies above the provincial government center and enemy forces have suffered a major defeat," he said in a statement.
Iraqi state TV showed government forces raising the national flag over the main government complex, and pro-government fighters parading through the streets after recapturing the Sunni-majority city they lost to IS militants in May.
"The city of Ramadi has been liberated," Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasul announced on state television on December 28. "The homeland is honored and a new history is started."
Ismail al-Mahlawi, head of military operations in Anbar Province, expressed caution, however. He said IS fighters maintained control over parts of Ramadi, the provincial capital.
"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 Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi delivered a speech in which he hailed Iraqi troops' advance, saying it had killed "hundreds" of militants and "fulfilled the promise to defeat Daesh in Ramadi," referring to the IS group 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."
The Iraqi military launched a campaign to retake Ramadi, located around 130 kilometers west of Baghdad, last week. But its progress had been slowed by snipers, booby traps, and the destruction by IS militants of all major bridges leading to Ramadi.
There were an estimated 400 IS fighters in Ramadi when the government launched its campaign last week. It is not clear how many were killed or how many were able to pull back to positions outside the city.
The Iraqi military has also not revealed how many casualties it suffered in the fighting.
If the recapture of Ramadi is confirmed, it would be the second city -- after Tikrit -- to be retaken by the Iraqi military from IS fighters, who control large swaths of northern and western Iraq as well as significant territory in neighboring Syria.
Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, told AP 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 Counter Terrorism Service, the Iraqi Air Force, local and federal police, and tribal fighters," Warren said.
The government has said the next target after Ramadi will be the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the largest population center controlled by IS militants in either Iraq or Syria.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, and AFP