Iraqi Security Forces surged men and tracked vehicles across a portable bridge supplied by the U.S. into the center of the flashpoint town of Ramadi Tuesday in a drive to break the hold of the Islamic State on the provincial capital of Anbar province.
Moving from south of the city, the Iraqi forces threw up an "improvised ribbon bridge" across a branch of the Euphrates River called the Thar Thar canal to hit defenders on the flank, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad.
The Iraqi forces had trained for the maneuver with the engineers of the 814th Multi-Role Bridging Company based at Fort Polk, Louisiana, Warren said. "We're encouraged by this tactical development," he said. To back up the bridge assault, U.S. warplanes conducted 33 airstrikes within the last 24 hours, he said.
Iraqi aircraft dropped leaflets over the city telling civilians to leave ahead of a final assault, and Iraqi generals were quoted in Western news media as saying they expected Ramadi to fall within 72 hours.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul Abdullah, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, said, "We are very optimistic that we will achieve victory in the next few days, because we are already in the center," The Washington Post reported.
Warren was more cautious.
"I think the fall of Ramadi is inevitable," he said in a telephone briefing to Pentagon reporters. 'The end is coming," he said, but "it's going to be a tough fight."
"The fight is fairly dynamic in spots," Warren added, as Iraqi forces proceed slowly past the tightly-packed buildings in the city's center to avoid mines and improvised explosive devices.
Warren was leery of providing estimates, but said about 250-300 fighters affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, were believed to be in the city, with another several hundred in positions on the outskirts.
The fall of Ramadi would mark a major setback for ISIS as well as a comeback for the Iraqi Security Forces, which fled the city last May leaving behind equipment and uniforms as ISIS advanced behind vehicle borne improvised explosive devices.
Warren said the Iraqi forces who surrounded the city were Sunni, including tribal fighters trained by the U.S. The central government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi kept Iraqi Shia militias backed by Iran out of the fight for Ramadi to avoid friction with the mostly Sunni population of Anbar province.
Warren said ISIS was attempting to portray the Iraqi Security Forces advances as a "sectarian fight," and he disclosed a leaflet handed over to the U.S. by the ISF which purported to be instructions from ISIS commanders to the rank and file on how to flee nearby Fallujah if it also came under attack.
The leaflets told fighters to don ISF uniforms and film themselves committing atrocities which would be used as propaganda.
"Bomb and detonate some area after letting civilians go inside it -- film it and claim it as PMF (Shia Popular Mobilization Forces) acts," the leaflet said. The fighters were also urged to mine mosques and film themselves abusing women.
Warren said the leaflet appeared to be authentic but he could not entirely vouch for its veracity.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com