Iraqi troops have been forced out of most of Ramadi by Islamic State forces, consolidating the militant group's control over the capital of Anbar province, which covers more than one-third of the country.
IS militants raised their flags over the government compound in the centre of the city on Friday little more than 12 hours after using car bombs to breach blast walls and open a path for fighters who stormed a police headquarters and military base. A British IS fighter reportedly died in a suicide attack during the assault.
Civilians were fleeing the fighting along the perilous highway towards Baghdad, much of which is also controlled by IS. Iraqi officials in Ramadi said they had pleaded for help ahead of the attack and now feared that the rest of the city would soon fall: a result that would give the terror organisation its biggest victory in Iraq this year.
It would also mark a significant defeat for Iraqi forces, who had allied with several powerful Sunni tribes in a bid to defend Ramadi and stop IS from taking control of the highways west to Syria and Jordan, as well as the water supply to southern Iraq which is regulated by a dam on the Euphrates river that runs through the city.
The attack was launched hours after the release of an audio recording by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which the IS leader exhorted followers to “fight the enemy wherever they are”. Baghdadi specifically mentioned Ramadi, in the first public message he has delivered since November.
The message seemed aimed at reassuring supporters that he remains in control of IS, despite claims from inside the group that he was injured in an airstrike in mid-March. A source familiar with Baghdadi’s condition has said that he is slowly recovering from a suspected spinal injury that left him unable to move for more than two months.
A reference to the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen meant the recording was made after 26 March.
The loss of Ramadi to IS would mean that nearly all of Anbar would be, in effect, partitioned from the rest of Iraq. Only small pockets between the city and Fallujah immediately to the east, as well as Al-Nukhayb 200 miles south-west, and several border towns, remain under the control of government forces.
Ramadi is a stronghold of the al-Dulaimi tribe, one of the most powerful in Iraq. Several of its clans have been central to a Sunni revolt against IS forces in the area. The Dulaimis were also the mainstays of the Awakening movement, which forced an earlier incarnation of IS, the Islamic State of Iraq, from Ramadi in 2007.
The Awakening was at the time strongly backed by the US army, which launched a troop surge to sustain it. The US military suffered close to one quarter of its casualties in the area from 2003 to 2008 and left in 2011 claiming that Baghdadi’s forces could no longer achieve their goals there.
Four years later, though, Isis appears closer than ever to imposing a de facto partition on Iraq, even after being forced to withdraw from Tikrit in April and losing large swaths of land near Kirkuk in the north to Kurdish forces.
US air strikes are understood to have killed at least 18 of 43 top-line IS leaders since they were launched last August. However the group has demonstrated that it can quickly regroup and still call the shots during ground battles.
Senior US officials remained sceptical of Iraqi claims that IS second-in-command, Abu Alaa al-Afri, was killed in an airstrike this week. The Iraqi defence ministry released a video of a strike to support its claim that al-Afri had been killed when a missile hit a mosque in the north western town of Tal Afar on May 11th. However, the video was shot on May 4th and appeared to target a regular building.
Also on Friday, an audio recording purporting to be from Izzat al-Douri, the most senior surviving figure of the Saddam Hussein era, the leader of Iraq’s now-outlawed Ba’ath party, was uploaded to the internet. Iraqi officials had claimed al-Douri had been killed near Tikrit in its successful offensive to reclaim the city. Troops and Shia militia had even driven what they claimed was al-Douri’s body through the streets of Baghdad as a war trophy.
Officials had pledged to offer DNA evidence to support their claim, but later backed away saying they could not find a family member with whom to compare the sample.