A military operation has been launched to drive Islamic State out of the western Anbar province of Iraq, where the extremists captured the provincial capital Ramadi earlier this month.
Iraqi state TV declared the start of the operation, in which troops will be backed by Shiite and Sunni paramilitary forces.
Islamic State (IS, or Isil) seized large parts of Anbar, starting early last year, and captured Ramadi earlier this month. The fall of the city marked a major defeat for Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists over the past year with the help of US-led airstrikes.
Security forces and Sunni militiamen who had been fighting the extremists in Ramadi for months collapsed as IS fighters overran the city. The militants gained not only new territory 70 miles west of Baghdad, but also large stocks of weapons abandoned by the Iraqi government forces as they fled.
The capture of Ramadi was a major blow to the allied strategy against Islamic State. US defence secretary Ash Carter said on Sunday that Iraqi forces “vastly outnumbered” the IS militants in Ramadi but “showed no will to fight”.
Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi, said his country’s government was surprised by Mr Carter’s remarks and the defence secretary “was likely given incorrect information”.
Mr al-Abadi has called on Shiite militias to help Iraqi troops retake the Sunni province of Anbar.
The militiamen have played a key role in clawing back territory from IS elsewhere in Iraq but rights groups accuse them of looting, destroying property and carrying out revenge attacks. Militia leaders deny the allegations.
A spokesman for Iraq's Shiite militias said the operation will ``not last for a long time'' and that Iraqi forces have surrounded the provincial capital, Ramadi, from three sides.
Ahmed al-Assadi, who is also a member of parliament, told reporters that new weapons are being used in the battle “that will surprise the enemy”.