BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi troops who have fought their way deep into the Islamic State stronghold of Ramadi were consolidating their positions on Friday ahead of a planned final assault to capture the city.Soldiers were clearing bombs from roads and homes in districts of Ramadi they had already taken since launching their assault on the city on Tuesday, state TV said.
Successfully recapturing Ramadi, a provincial capital in the fertile Euphrates River valley just two hours drive from Baghdad, would be one of the most important victories achieved by Iraq's armed forces since Islamic State militants swept across a third of the country in 2014.
The Iraqi government forces are backed by air support from an international coalition led by the United States. Shi'ite militia units backed by Iran, which have played a major part in other government offensives, have been kept away from the battlefield in Ramadi to avoid angering Sunni Muslim residents.
Ramadi, capital of mainly Sunni Muslim Anbar province, was Islamic State's biggest prize of 2015, abandoned by government forces in May in a major setback for Baghdad that forced Washington to look hard at its strategy against the militants.
The Baghdad government has long said it intended to recapture Ramadi before launching an offensive against Mosul, the largest city in Iraq's north and Islamic State's main stronghold in the country.
Three days into the government assault, the militants are still entrenched in the center of Ramadi, around the provincial government complex. Army commanders said on Wednesday the battle for Ramadi would take several days.Concern that civilians are still living in the areas held by the militants is slowing the troops' advance, the authorities say.Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said the militants are using civilians as human shields.
"It makes things more complicated but it won't change the result; the advance will continue, it will just take more time," he told Reuters in Cairo.State TV on Friday showed piles of ammunition crates, mortar rounds and plastic gasoline containers filled with explosives it said were found in Ramadi homes. Citing a military statement, it said the armed forces had finished securing the Hay al-Dhubbat neighborhood that it seized on Tuesday.The ultimate target of the government is to retake Mosul, a city with a pre-war population of close to 2 million.
After capturing Mosul in 2014, the group also known by the acronyms ISIL, ISIS or Daesh declared a caliphate to rule over all Muslims from Sunni-populated territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.
"The liberation of dear Mosul will be achieved with the cooperation and unity of all Iraqis after the victory in Ramadi," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement on the state media website on Friday.In a Friday sermon to rally the nation, read by an aide, Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the government to make the fight against Islamic State its top priority.
"To recover all the land from Daesh, to rebuild the residential areas, to return the displaced person are top priorities for everybody, foremost for the government's decision makers," said Sistani's representative Ahmed al-Safi, in a sermon in the holy Shi'ite city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, broadcast on state TV.
Reporting by Saif Hameed and Maher Chmaytelli in Baghdad, and Sameh Elbardissi in Cairo; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Peter Graff