Iraqi forces fight way to centre of Ramadi in latest blow to Isil
Coalition airstrikes help deal with snipers and suicide bombers
The Iraqi army stands on the verge of recapturing Ramadi from Isil after troops advanced into the centre of the city, according to the Baghdad government.
Terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) seized Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and a city with about 450,000 people, as long ago as May.
During the fall of Ramadi, its Iraqi defenders were routed when Isil sent 37 vehicle-borne suicide bombers into the city. Since then, the army has managed to counter-attack and surround Ramadi, sealing it off from Isil supply lines. In recent weeks, Iraqi forces have advanced into the outskirts of the city, located 90km west of Baghdad.
But yesterday, they penetrated into the centre. "We went into the centre of Ramadi from several fronts and we began purging residential areas," said Sabah al-Noman, a spokesman of the Iraqi counter-terrorism service. "The city will be cleared in the coming 72 hours," he said.
During the assault, soldiers crossed the Euphrates after repairing a bridge that had been blown up by the defenders. "Crossing the river was the main difficulty," said Mr Noman. "We're facing sniper fire and suicide bombers who are trying to slow our advance. We're dealing with them with air force support.
"It's ferocious fight, it's premature to say how long it will take but we can say victory will be achieved in a few days," he said.
Elsewhere, the struggle against Isil has been waged by Shia militias, often armed, trained and commanded by Revolutionary Guard officers from neighbouring Iran. But the Baghdad government chose to rely on the Iraqi army to retake Ramadi, helping to explain why the campaign has proceeded relatively slowly.
The offensive is being led by the army's elite counter-terrorism force, supported by air strikes launched by the US Air Force and its allies.
The army and has also been helped by local Sunni tribes opposed to Isil's rule.
Earlier, Iraqi forces scattered leaflets over Ramadi warning citizens to leave the city ahead of the assault. Only a few hundred Isil fighters are believed to remain, but they are thought to have issued a counter-order for people to stay in their homes, where they can be used as human shields.
Even if Isil are forced to evacuate Ramadi, they are likely to rig the buildings with explosives and leave behind a multitude of booby-traps.
A study conducted by IHS Jane's, the defence consultancy, found that Isil had been forced onto the defensive, losing 14pc of its total territory during the course of 2015. Most of its defeats have taken place in Iraq, where it faces robust opposition on the ground, supported by US-led air strikes. In Syria, the opposing ground forces are significantly weaker.
Since over-running Ramadi, Isil has destroyed all the bridges around the city. It also demolished the Anbar operations command and fanned out into the city's residential areas to set up less conspicuous centres of command.
As the operation to retake the provincial capital progresses, Ramadi's sizeable civilian population - estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000 - remains mostly trapped inside the city.
Iraqi officials say they believe civilians will be able to flee the city, but coalition officials report that so far they have only witnessed small groups doing so.