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After Ramadi gain, Iraqi army eyes next ISIL stronghold

Armed forces head towards Fallujah, government says, but are expected to face strong resistance from ISIL fighters.

The Iraqi army, emboldened by the recent recapturing of the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is now eyeing another ISIL stronghold: Fallujah.

The defence ministry said on Wednesday that Iraqi security forces, supported by US-led air strikes, had started advancing towards Fallujah from different sides.

It added that Iraqi forces were trying to cleanse areas adjacent to the Euphrates River and around Fallujah in order to cut ISIL's supply line to the city.

But military experts say that the presence of large numbers of improvised explosive devices and mines planted by ISIL at the entrances of the city, in addition to the violent resistance the group is putting up, will not make taking over Fallujah an easy mission.
 
Moreover, the Iraqi forces will need to consolidate power over the areas they have already taken over, experts said.

On Monday, Iraqi troops raised the national flag above the main government complex in Ramadi after days of deadly fighting against ISIL.

But there were still pockets of resistance in and around the city, and the army will have to go "block by block" to clear them out, according to Steven Warren, spokesman for US forces in Iraq.

Bessma Momani, an associate professor of international affairs at Waterloo University, said that Ramadi, which remained under ISIL control for eight months, is a key testing ground for the Iraqi government.

"It's a lot easier to conquer than it is to hold on to this territory. This loss of Ramadi [in May] was a huge blow to the Iraqi forces … Can it hold on? That will be the real challenge," she said.

On Tuesday, as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was making his way to Ramadi, suspected ISIL fighters opened fire at his helicopter using small arms, but were too far out of range to do any damage.

Abadi arrived safely with the province's top military commander at the Anbar University complex in the city's southern outskirts.

A triumphant Abadi, in a televised speech on Monday, vowed that "2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when [ISIL's] presence in Iraq will be terminated".

"We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal and final blow to [ISIL]," he said. 

Mosul, northern Iraq's main city, is by far the largest population centre in the self-proclaimed caliphate ISIL rules in Iraq and Syria after going on the offensive in June 2014. 


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