“Islamic State” militants are thought to have 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.
The government-backed Shia militias have vowed to mount a counter-offensive and reclaim the Anbar provincial capital.
The statements followed the 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 US-led air strikes 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 vehicles speeding out of Ramadi, with soldiers desperate to reach safety gripping on to 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 IS militants have in the past killed hundreds of civilians and soldiers in the aftermath of their major victories.
The estimates given by Mr 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, Mr Haimour said, when the UN 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, “IS” declared a caliphate in areas under its control in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition since August, Iraqi forces and allied militias have recaptured some of the areas seized by IS 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 IS as well as whether these forces have sufficiently recovered from last year’s stunning defeats.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, said he remained confident about the fight against IS, despite setbacks. Mr Kerry, travelling through South Korea, said that he had 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, Shia 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 US-led invasion. The militants are believed to be in control of some 60-plus per cent of Anbar, which stretches from the western edge of Baghdad all the way to Syria and Jordan.