BAGHDAD — Islamic State militants likely killed up to 500 Iraqi civilians and soldiers and forced 8,000 people to flee from their homes as they captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, a provincial official said Monday, while the extremists went door-to-door looking for policemen and pro-government tribesmen.
Iraq's government and Iranian-backed Shiite militias vowed to mount a counter-offensive and reclaim Ramadi, the capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province. Iran's Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan flew to Baghdad on a surprise visit for urgent talks with Iraqi leaders.
The fall of Ramadi was a stunning defeat for Iraq's security forces and military, which fled as the Islamic State extremists overwhelmed the last hold-out positions of pro-government forces, despite the support of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting the extremists. Online video showed Humvees, trucks and other equipment speeding out of Ramadi, with soldiers desperate to reach safety gripping onto their sides.
Since Friday, when the battle for the city entered its final stages, "we estimate that 500 people have been killed, both civilians and military," said a spokesman for the Anbar provincial government, Muhannad Haimour.
The figures could not be independently confirmed, but Islamic State militants have in the past killed hundreds of civilians and soldiers in the aftermath of their major victories.
Some 8,000 people fled the city, Haimour said. It was not immediately clear how many people remain in Ramadi — once a city of 850,000 that has been draining population for months amid fighting with the extremists besieging it. An enormous exodus took place in April, when the U.N. estimates some 114,000 residents streamed out of Ramadi and surrounding villages.
Bodies, some charred, were strewn in the streets or tossed into the Euphrates river, said Naeem al-Gauoud, a leader from the Sunni tribes that fought against IS in Ramadi.
Ramadi's streets were deserted Monday, with only few people venturing out of their homes to look for food, according to two residents reached by telephone.
The militants, meanwhile, were storming the homes of policemen and pro-government tribesmen, particularly those from the large Al Bu Alwan tribe, of whom they detained about 30, the residents said. The militants went door-to-door with lists of alleged pro-government collaborators. Homes and stores owned by a pro-government Sunni militia known as the Sahwa were looted or torched.
The residents spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals by the militants.
Sunday's defeat in Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, recalled the collapse of Iraqi forces last summer in the face of a blitz by the extremist group, when it took the northern city of Mosul and swept over much of the north and west of the country. Later, IS declared a caliphate in areas under its control in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition since August, Iraqi forces and allied militias have recaptured some of the areas seized by the Islamic State over the past year. But the new defeat in Anbar calls into question the Obama administration's hopes of relying solely on air power to support Iraqi forces in the battle against IS as well as whether these forces have sufficiently recovered from last year's stunning defeats.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he remained confident about the fight against the Islamic State group, despite the setbacks like the loss of Ramadi. Kerry, traveling through South Korea, said that he's long said the fight against the militant group would be a long one, and that it would be tough in Anbar province, where Iraqi security forces are not built up.
The militants are now believed to control of more than 60 percent of Anbar, which stretches from the western edge of Baghdad all the way to Syria and Jordan. The mostly desert province, where the population is almost entirely from Iraq's Sunni minority, was a heartland of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. troops following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Until now, the defense of Anbar had been in the hands of the military and Sunni tribesmen, whom the Shiite-led government has vowed to arm and support — but has only done slowly and partially.
But the fall of Ramadi now is prompting the entry of Shiite militias into the fray, raising the danger of frictions with the Sunni populace.
Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Shiite militias to prepare to go into Anbar, ignoring U.S. concerns their presence could spark sectarian bloodshed. By late Sunday, a large number of Shiite militiamen had arrived at a military base near Ramadi, apparently to participate in a possible counter-offensive, said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.
Youssef al-Kilabi, a spokesman for the Shiite militias fighting alongside government forces, told the AP on Monday that the Iranian-backed paramilitary forces have drawn up plans for a Ramadi counter-offensive in cooperation with government forces.
We will "eliminate this barbaric enemy," al-Kilabi vowed. He did not elaborate on the plans or the timing of a counter-offensive.
Shiite militias, many of them backed by Iran, have been key to victories against the Islamic State group on other fronts north of Baghdad in recent months. But they have also been widely criticized over charges of extrajudicial killings of Sunnis, as well as of looting and torching of Sunni property. Militia leaders deny these charges.
In the face of IS, some Sunnis appear ready to accept even the Shiite militiamen's help. Al-Gauoud, the Sunni tribal leader, said, "We welcome any group, including Shiite militias, to come and help us in liberating the city from the militants."
Abu Mohammed, a retired government employee from Ramadi, welcomed the participation of Shiite militias in liberating Ramadi. But Abu Ammar, another Anbar native who owns a grocery store in Ramadi, said he saw no difference between IS' brutal practices and those by Shiite militiamen.
"If the Shiite militias enter Ramadi, they will do the same things being done by Daesh," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "In both cases, we will be either killed or displaced. For us, the militias and IS militants are two faces of the same coin."
The final IS push to take Ramadi began early Sunday with four nearly simultaneous bombings that targeted police officers defending the Malaab district in southern Ramadi, a pocket of the city still under Iraqi government control, killing at least 10 policemen and wounding 15, officials said. The militants then hit the provincial military headquarters with three suicide bombers, killing five soldiers.
Troops fled the headquarters, leaving behind some 30 vehicles and weapons including artillery assault rifles, and some two dozen police officers went missing during the fighting, according to one police officer stationed at the headquarters.
Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Dahuk, Iraq, and Ahmed Sami in Baghdad contributed to this report.