Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi planted the national flag in Ramadi on Tuesday after the army retook the city centre from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a day earlier, a victory that could help vindicate his strategy for rebuilding the military after stunning defeats.
If the Anbar provincial capital can be fully secured and re-populated, it would be the first major success for the U.S.-trained force that fled 18 months ago as jihadist ISIS militants surged through northern and western Iraq.
Security forces must still remove explosives planted in streets and buildings and clear out fighters in some densely built-up areas, and much of the infrastructure needs to be rebuilt.
Three mortar rounds landed about 500 meters (0.3 miles) from Abadi’s location during his visit, three security sources said. The prime minister was not in danger but was forced to leave the area, they said.
Abadi had arrived in Ramadi by helicopter. He moved through the city with the Anbar governor and top security officials in a convoy of Humvees, crossing a floating bridge used by the armed forces last week to retake the city centre.
He met soldiers at the main government complex captured by counter-terrorism forces on Monday and planted the tri-colour flag outside the building.
He had announced the visit to Ramadi himself on Twitter and declared Thursday a national holiday in celebration.
The army’s apparent capture of Ramadi, in the Euphrates River valley west of Baghdad, marks a milestone for the forces, which crumbled when the hardline Sunni Muslim militants seized a third of Iraq in June 2014.
In battles since then, Iraq’s armed forces had operated mainly in a supporting role beside powerful Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias.
Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based analyst who has worked with the Iraqi government, said the retaking of Ramadi suggested Abadi’s strategy of heavy U.S. air support while sidelining the Shiite militias, which have served as a bulwark against ISIS but drawn objections from Washington, could be effective.
“Ramadi is an example that the regular army wishes to promote for upcoming battles of liberation,” said Hashimi.
“Excited about this victory”
PM Al-Abadi raised the Iraqi flag in Ramadi and commended the efforts of the Iraqi forces in liberating the city pic.twitter.com/bJDpD5ZCq0— Haider Al-Abadi (@HaiderAlAbadi) December 29, 2015