BAGHDAD (AP) — The Islamic State group killed at least 500 people — both civilians and Iraqi soldiers — and forced 8,000 to flee their homes as it captured the city of Ramadi, a provincial official said Monday, while Shiite militias vowed to mount a counter-offensive and reclaim the Anbar provincial capital.
The statements followed a shocking defeat as IS seized control of Ramadi on Sunday, sending Iraqi forces fleeing in a major loss despite the support of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting the extremists.
Bodies, some burned, littered the streets as local officials reported the militants carried out mass killings of Iraqi security forces and civilians. Online video showed Humvees, trucks and other equipment speeding out of Ramadi, with soldiers gripping onto their sides.
“We do not have an accurate count yet,” said an Anbar spokesman, Muhannad Haimour. “We estimate that 500 people have been killed, both civilians and military, and approximately 8,000 have fled the city.”
The estimates are for the past three days, since Friday, when the battle for the city reached its final stages. The 8,000 figure is in addition to the enormous exodus in April, Haimour said, when the U.N. said as many as 114,000 residents fled from Ramadi and surrounding villages at the height of the violence.
Local officials have said that IS carried out mass killings of Iraqi security forces and civilians.
With defeat looming, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had ordered security forces not to abandon their posts across Anbar, apparently fearing the extremists could capture the entire desert region that saw intense fighting after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.
Al-Abadi also ordered Shiite militias to prepare to go into the Sunni-dominated province, ignoring U.S. concerns their presence could spark sectarian bloodshed. By late Sunday, a large number of Shiite militiamen had arrived at a military base near Ramadi, apparently to participate in a possible counter-offensive, said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.
Youssef al-Kilabi, a spokesman for the Shiite militias fighting alongside Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s forces, told The Associated Press on Monday that the paramilitary forces have drawn up plans for a Ramadi offensive in cooperation with the government security forces and vowed to dislodge IS from Ramadi.
We will “eliminate this barbaric enemy,” al-Kilabi said. “God willing, we will achieve this triumph and we will not accept anything less than that.”
He did not elaborate on the plans or the timing of a counter-offensive.
Since IS blitzed through northern and western Iraq last June, thousands of Shiites militiamen have answered the call from the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to take up the fight against the militants.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he remained confident about the fight against the Islamic State group, despite the setbacks like the loss of Ramadi. Kerry, traveling through South Korea, said that he’s long said the fight against the militant group would be a long one, and that it would be tough in the Anbar province of western Iraq where Iraqi security forces are not built up.
Sunday’s retreat recalled the collapse of Iraqi security forces last summer in the extremist group’s push across Iraq that saw the IS capture a third of the country, where the group has since declared a caliphate, or Islamic State. It also calls into question the Obama administration’s hopes of relying solely on airstrikes to support the Iraqi forces in expelling the extremists.
“We welcome any group, including Shiite militias, to come and help us in liberating the city from the militants,” said a Sunni tribal leader, Naeem al-Gauoud. He said many tribal fighters died trying to defend the city, and bodies, some charred, were strewn in the streets, while others had been thrown in the Euphrates River.
The final IS push to take Ramadi began early Sunday with four nearly simultaneous bombings that targeted police officers defending the Malaab district in southern Ramadi, a pocket of the city still under Iraqi government control, killing at least 10 police and wounding 15, officials said. Among the dead was Col. Muthana al-Jabri, the chief of the Malaab police station. Later, three suicide bombers drove their explosive-laden cars into the gate of the Anbar Operation Command, the military headquarters for the province, killing at least five soldiers and wounding 12, the officials said.
The extremists later seized Malaab after government forces withdrew, with the militants saying they controlled the military headquarters. A police officer who was stationed at the headquarters said retreating Iraqi forces left behind about 30 army vehicles and weapons that included artillery and assault rifles. He said some two dozen police officers went missing during the fighting. The officer and the other officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
On a militant website frequented by Islamic State members, a message from the group claimed its fighters held the 8th Brigade army base, as well as tanks and missile launchers left behind by fleeing soldiers. The message could not be independently verified by the AP, but it was similar to others released by the group and was spread online by known supporters of the extremists.
Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have made gains against IS elsewhere in Iraq, including capturing the northern city of Tikrit, with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
But progress has been slow in Anbar, a Sunni province where anger at the Shiite-led government runs deep and where U.S. forces struggled for years to beat back a potent insurgency. Previous estimates suggested the Islamic State group held at least 65 percent of the vast Anbar.
American soldiers fought some of their bloodiest battles since Vietnam on the streets of Ramadi and Fallujah.
Associated Press writer Vivian Salama contributed to this report from Dahuk, Iraq.