RAMADI, Iraq (AP) — Six times in the past harrowing month, Um Omar and her family got a knock on the door of whatever home they were occupying in the extremist-held city of Ramadi: It was an Islamic State militant, she said, ordering them to pick up and move with them as human shields because the Iraqi army was approaching.
“Every time the army would advance, Daesh would knock on our door and say, ‘OK, time to go,'” the woman said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The knock came again Thursday morning in the Soufiya neighborhood of northeastern Ramadi, Um Omar said, and to her surprise it was the counterterrorism forces of the Iraqi military. She and about 60 other people had just been rescued.
It’s still a little unclear to her what happened to the extremists, said the woman, who spoke on condition she not be identified by her full name to protect relatives who may still be trapped in Ramadi.
Either all the IS fighters were killed during clashes Wednesday night, or they fled further into the neighborhood and didn’t have time to bring their captives along to another part of Ramadi.
The capital of sprawling Anbar province fell in May to the IS group, also known by its Arab acronym Daesh. It was the biggest setback for Iraq’s military since the city of Mosul fell to the group in the summer of 2014.
Iraqi troops, working with the counterterrorism forces, retook the center of Ramadi last month with heavy air support from the U.S.-led coalition.
Ramadi still cannot be considered fully liberated, with pockets of IS fighters still holed up in half to two-thirds of the city’s neighborhoods in the east and north.
As Iraqi government forces have advanced from west to east from downtown Ramadi and expelled IS militants in December, the extremists have pulled back with their civilian captives as shields, leaving behind houses booby-trapped with explosives and roadside bombs.
Fighters with the elite counterterrorism forces that are leading operations in the Anbar provincial capital, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, say the practice is slowing them down and complicating the already-messy challenge of house- to-house urban warfare.
Heavy airstrikes and the Islamic State group’s scorched-earth practices have left most of Ramadi in ruins. The devastating combination razed nearly every building along its main thoroughfare. On most city blocks, no house is spared damage; others are reduced to rubble.
But as Iraqi forces continue to advance, evacuations like the one that brought Um Omar and her family to safety are draining time and resources from the fight to retake territory, according to troops and commanders.
“The main problem now are the civilians, that is what’s slowing our progress,” said Maj. Gen. Fadhil Barwari, the commander of the counterterrorism unit in Ramadi.
Working out of a marble-tiled home that his unit has transformed into an operations center, he juggles phone calls and local TV interviews. Off to the side, one of his men unrolls a map and reads out coordinates to someone speaking in Australian-accented English on the other end of the line.
“We thought it was going to be easier because we have airstrikes and air support,” Barwari said, referring to the intense waves of coalition bombing that paved the way for his forces’ initial advance in western Ramadi. “But now, when the pilot sees civilians, they don’t strike.”
Unlike other Iraqi cities like Tikrit and Beiji, where troops have pushed out the militants, thousands of civilians remained in Ramadi under months of IS rule. While the U.S.-trained counterterrorism forces are the most effective unit in the Iraqi military, they still largely depend on air support to retake ground.
In Soufiya, on the northeastern edge of the city center, Barwari’s men slowly comb blocks of low-rise homes surrounded by palm trees. Above them, two Iraqi military helicopters circle along the front line, firing in advance of comrades in a dozen Humvees. By that afternoon, only a single coalition airstrike had targeted the front line.
On the day before the fall of Sinjar, coalition planes launched 24 airstrikes on the town in 24 hours. In Ramadi, a city five times the size of Sinjar, coalition planes were only averaging four airstrikes a day in the week before the city center fell.
Barwari said his men have moved more than 3,000 people out of Ramadi, and he estimates that thousands remain. The rescues and evacuations are draining resources and not only slowing progress in Ramadi but also across the Euphrates River valley, he said.
Iraq’s counterterrorism forces are the only ones in the Iraqi military that have successfully launched prolonged offensives against IS. With the forces bogged down in clearing Ramadi, plans for a push into Fallujah have effectively been put on hold.
Shiite militias, which have effectively retaken territory from IS in other Iraqi regions, have been kept on the sidelines in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
Watching the battle in Ramadi via reconnaissance drones, Col. Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said he has seen IS militants “herding civilians” over toward the Soufiya neighborhood.
“It hasn’t significantly slowed operations, but yeah, it’s slowed to a degree,” Warren said by phone from Baghdad.
While IS hides among civilians in the cities they control, this is the first time the coalition has seen militants moving families with them as they retreat. Like the elaborate networks of tunnels found in Kobani and Sinjar after those towns were cleared of extremists, the group’s practice of using human shields as they retreat is aimed at diminishing the effectiveness of a strategy that relies heavily on airstrikes.
Asked whether this practice could complicate plans to retake cities like Mosul and Raqqa with much larger civilian populations, Warren said: “It’s too early to tell.”
“What we don’t know is if this is a tactic or an act of desperate men,” he added.
Um Omar described a combination of threats and random violence that IS used to prevent her family from escaping.
“They would put us in a house and say, ‘all around you are bombs, so for your safety, you cannot leave,'” she recounted.
After a neighbor tried to escape, two fighters dragged her from her home to the middle of the street and shot her, Um Omar said.
When Um Omar’s brother begged to be allowed to cross the front line, explaining his diabetic mother-in-law needed medical attention, “they just yelled at my brother, saying that he only wanted to expose his daughters and sisters to foreigners.”
Once the family gave up hope of escaping, Um Omar said she tried to find new ways to calm her brother’s five young children.
“For the airstrikes, I could only tell them to put their fingers in their ears and not to worry, it’s going to end, it will all be over,” she said.
But Um Omar said she was sure they would die with the militants in Ramadi.
“They always told us, ‘you are just here to protect us from the nonbelievers,'” she said.
Kalid Mohammed in Ramadi contributed to this report.