Islamic State militants likely killed up to 500 Iraqi civilians and soldiers and forced 8,000 people to flee from their homes as they captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, a provincial official said Monday, while the extremists went door-to-door looking for policemen and pro-government tribesmen.
Iraq’s government and Iranianbacked Shiite militias vowed to mount a counter-offensive and reclaim Ramadi, the capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province. Iran’s Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan flew to Baghdad on a surprise visit for urgent talks with Iraqi leaders.
The fall of Ramadi was a stunning defeat for Iraq’s security forces and military, which fled as the Islamic State extremists overwhelmed the last hold-out positions of pro-government forces, despite the support of U.S.- led airstrikes targeting the extremists. Online video showed Humvees, trucks and other equipment speeding out of Ramadi, with soldiers desperate to reach safety gripping onto their sides.
Since Friday, when the battle for the city entered its final stages, “we estimate that 500 people have been killed, both civilians and military,” said a spokesman for the Anbar provincial government, Muhannad Haimour.
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.
Some 8,000 people fled the city, Haimour said. It was not immediately clear how many people remain in Ramadi — once a city of 850,000 that has been draining population for months amid fighting with the extremists besieging it. An enormous exodus took place in April, when the U.N. estimates some 114,000 residents streamed out of Ramadi and surrounding villages.
Bodies, some charred, were strewn in the streets or tossed into the Euphrates river, said Naeem al-Gauoud, a leader from the Sunni tribes that fought against IS in Ramadi.
Ramadi’s streets were deserted Monday, with only few people venturing out of their homes to look for food, according to two residents reached by telephone. The militants, meanwhile, were storming the homes of policemen and pro-government tribesmen, particularly those from the large Al Bu Alwan tribe, of whom they detained about 30, the residents said.
The militants went door-to-door with lists of alleged progovernment collaborators. Homes and stores owned by a pro-government Sunni militia known as the Sahwa were looted or torched.
The residents spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals by the militants.
Sunday’s defeat in Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, recalled the collapse of Iraqi forces last summer in the face of a blitz by the extremist group, when it took the northern city of Mosul and swept over much of the north and west of the country. Later, IS 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 new 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 IS as well as whether these forces have sufficiently recovered from last year’s stunning defeats.