Iraq forces advance slowly towards government complex in Ramadi
BAGHDAD - Iraqi forces on Saturday clashed with diehard jihadists from the Islamic State group defending the former government complex in the heart of the city of Ramadi.
After a major push on Tuesday that broke ISIS defences around the city centre, government forces have been slowed by snipers, booby traps, roadside bombs and suicide attackers.
While initial hopes of a quick victory have faded, Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) and the army have advanced steadily through the devastated capital of Anbar province.
They reached a key intersection in the Hoz neighbourhood home to the government complex, whose recapture would go a long way towards ensuring a full recapture of Ramadi.
"CTS has cleared Hoz neighbourhood in central Ramadi completely and arrived near the government complex," the force's spokesman Sabah al-Numan said.
Iraq's war media cell, which speaks on behalf of the interior and defence ministries as well as the paramilitary groups fighting against ISIS, said the jihadists' use of improvised explosive devices had forced a shift in strategy.
"The plan was to enter Hoz from Dhubbat but because of the mines, CTS changed tack and came in from the river bank," a statement said.
The latest fighting around the government complex left at least two members of the Iraqi security forces dead and nine wounded, according to Ahmed al-Dulaimi, a police captain.
At least three were killed on Friday, according to several senior officers and local officials.
The figures they provide for ISIS casualties are high, with at least 23 killed on Friday alone.
The number of ISIS fighters hunkered down in central Ramadi was estimated at the start of the operation five days ago at no more than 400.
"You have the 8th Iraqi army and CTS... and they're all pushing forward," said Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the US-led coalition which has been supporting Iraqi forces in Ramadi with daily air strikes.
"CTS have made more progress, they're several hundred metres (yards) closer to the government complex," Warren said.
The advance by the government forces has also been hampered by the possible presence of dozens of families trapped in the combat zone and used by ISIS as human shields.
Government forces held off months of ISIS assaults in Ramadi until May 2015, when the jihadists blitzed their opponents with massive suicide car bombs and seized full control of the city.
That defeat was Baghdad's worst in the war against ISIS, and a victory now would provide a welcome boost to the much-criticised federal forces.