BAGHDAD Iraqi forces recaptured territory east of Ramadi from Islamic State militants on Tuesday, linking the Anbar provincial capital to a major army base nearby, and officials appealed for international funding to help clear the city of explosives.
Iraq's army declared victory in December over Islamic State (IS) in Ramadi after elite counter-terrorism forces seized the main government building, but it has taken weeks for the commandos to clear insurgents from the rural eastern outskirts.
The recapture of Ramadi was the first major gain for the U.S.-trained force since it collapsed in the face of an assault by the ultra-hardline Sunni militants in 2014. Ramadi's recovery boosted Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in his quest to oust IS from Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city, later this year.
A military statement broadcast on state television said the army, police and counter-terrorism forces had retaken several areas including the town of Husaiba al-Sharqiya, about 10 km (6 miles) east of Ramadi.
"(Our forces) also managed to open the road from Ramadi to Baghdad that passes through al-Khaldiya," the statement added, referring to a highway that links the city to the Habbaniya army base where U.S.-led coalition forces are located.
"All of Ramadi has now been liberated," Anbar Governor Sohaib al-Rawi said, adding that the handover of authority to local police from the military was going smoothly.
Militants are still holed up in some rural northern districts bordering the main east-west highway, according to security sources. "The biggest challenge we are facing is clearing the areas of mines, which is now being conducted through modest local efforts," Rawi told reporters in Baghdad.
Tuesday's advance boosted government efforts to close in on Falluja, the Islamic State stronghold located between Ramadi and Baghdad now being besieged by the Iraqi army and allied, Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militias.
The ultra-hardline Sunni militants of IS swept through a third of Iraq in 2014, declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, carrying out mass killings and imposing a draconian form of Islam, but have since been pushed back on various fronts.
U.N. efforts to stabilise Ramadi in preparation for the expected return of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians are expected to cost around $50 million, according to Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.
She said this would include $15 million for removing hundreds of improvised explosive devices planted by Islamic State on roads and in buildings. Grande appealed to international donors to augment the current $10 million fund allocated for that operation.
"At the rate that extraction is going with the limited capacity that exists, it will be up to nine months before the area of Tamim is cleared," she said, referring to a large southern district of Ramadi where the first phase of U.N. efforts will be conducted.
The United Nations also plans to rehabilitate health and energy infrastructure in Ramadi, much of which was destroyed in fighting that included Islamic State bomb attacks and devastating U.S.-led coalition air strikes.
"Thousands of homes have to be rebuilt, thousands of buildings have to be rebuilt. The total cost of reconstruction in Ramadi is huge," said Grande.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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Updated Date: Feb 10, 2016 00:16 AM