Islamic State militants likely killed up to 500 people — both Iraqi civilians and soldiers — and forced 8,000 to flee from their homes as they captured the city of Ramadi, a provincial official said Monday, while the government-backed Shiite militias vowed to mount a counter-offensive and reclaim the Anbar provincial capital.
The statements followed Sunday's shocking defeat of Iraq's security and military forces as the militants swiftly took control of Ramadi, sending government forces there fleeing in a major loss despite the support of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting the extremists.
Bodies, some burned, littered the city's 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 desperate to reach safety 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 figures could not be independently confirmed, but Islamic State militants have in the past killed hundreds of civilians and soldiers in the aftermath of their major victories.
The estimates given by Haimour are for the past three days, since Friday, when the battle for the city entered 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 Ramadi and surrounding villages at the height of the violence.
Sunday's defeat recalled the collapse of Iraqi forces last summer in the face of a blitz by the extremist group across much of northern and western Iraq. Later, ISIS declared a caliphate in areas under its control in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition since August, Iraqi forces and allied militias have recaptured some of the areas seized by the Islamic State over the past year, but the latest defeat in Anbar calls into question the Obama administration's hopes of relying solely on air power to support Iraqi forces in the battle against ISIS as well as whether these forces have sufficiently recovered from last year's stunning defeats.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, 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.
With defeat looming over the weekend, Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered security forces not to abandon their posts across Anbar, apparently fearing the extremists could capture the entire desert region that saw some of the most intense fighting after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein. The militants are believed to be in control of some 60-plus percent of Anbar, which stretches from the western edge of Baghdad all the way to Syria and Jordan.
Al-Abadi also ordered Shiite militias to prepare to go into the mostly Sunni 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 government forces, told The Associated Press on Monday that the Iranian-backed paramilitary forces have drawn up plans for a Ramadi counter-offensive in cooperation with government forces.
We will "eliminate this barbaric enemy," al-Kilabi vowed. "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. However, the Shiite militias have been widely criticized in Iraq and abroad over charges of extrajudicial killings of Sunnis, as well as of looting and torching of Sunni property.
Militia leaders deny these charges and al-Abadi has come to their defense, insisting that their fighting spirit has helped government forces recapture territory from the Islamic State north and northeast of Baghdad.
"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 policemen 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 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.
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