By Maher Chmaytelli
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's army chief was quoted on Wednesday as saying he needed only days to drive Islamic State from Ramadi, the city whose fall in May exposed the weakness of the Baghdad government and dampened hopes of restoring control in the north and west.
Iraqi troops began advancing on Tuesday in an offensive complicated by rivalries and suspicions harbored by local Sunni tribes and by Shi'ite militia backed by Iran. U.S. officials, concerned also by militant operations over the border in Syria, have expressed frustration at delays in seizing back the city.
"In the coming days will be announced the good news of the complete liberation of Ramadi," Iraqia TV cited army chief of staff Lt. General Othman al-Ghanemi as saying.
Government troops are now concentrating on the last district held by the militants in the center of Ramadi, a Sunni Muslim city on the river Euphrates some 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad and capital of Anbar province.
If captured, it will be the second major city after Tikrit to be retaken from Islamic State in Iraq. It would provide a major psychological boost to Iraqi security forces after the militant group seized a third of Iraq, a major OPEC oil producer and U.S ally, in a sweeping advance last year.Progress has been slow because the government wants to rely entirely on its own troops and not use Shi'ite militias in order to avoid rights abuses such as occurred after the recapture of Tikrit from the militants in April.
Iraqi officials say Shi'ite militias are reluctant to yield power amassed with Iranian backing, making it hard to forge a unified strategy. Operations are also complicated by competition for influence in Baghdad between Washington and Tehran.
Local Sunni tribes have not been involved directly in the assault, but have been active in support activities across the province - a contrast to the U.S.-backed Tribal Awakening campaign 10 years ago when they united to drive al Qaeda elements from Anbar.
Joint operations command spokesman Yahia Rasool told Reuters the city would be handed over to Anbar police and local tribes after it was fully cleared and secured.
By contrast to 2005, the Sunni tribes are now dealing with a government less given to sectarian Shi'ite loyalties.
AIMING FOR MOSUL
The ultimate aim is to clear Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq's largest northern city, and Falluja, which lies between Ramadi and Baghdad, as well as large areas of Syria - the core of what it has declared to be a caliphate.
The control of major population centers in Iraq and Syria allows it to maintain a revenue base, controlling oil resources and large, fertile agricultural areas, and possibly plan attacks outside its core territory.
Citing military statements, Iraqi state TV said government forces had killed hundreds of militants since Tuesday. It gave no casualty toll for government forces.The offensive started on Tuesday at dawn, when units crossed the Euphrates river into central districts using two bridges - one rebuilt by army engineers, and a second floating structure, an army spokesman said, describing fighting then as "ferocious".
The troops did not make progress on Wednesday as they were busy consolidating their positions and dismantling improvised explosive devices left by the militants, said Col. Mohammed Ibrahim, a spokesman for the War Media Cell on Whatsapp. The distance to the Ramadi government complex, the target building of the troops in the city center, is 1,700 meters (just over one mile), and the presence of civilians is slowing their progress, he said.
(Additional reporting by Saif Hameed; editing by Ralph Boulton and Dominic Evans)