The top U.S. commander in Baghdad praised on Friday Iraqi ground forces for recapturing the southwestern town of Rutba after ISIS militants who had occupied it for nearly two years fled or put up only light resistance.
Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland told reporters Friday that the army bolstered by U.S. airstrikes retook control of the area in an important victory for the Iraqi security forces, even though Rutba is a small town.
MacFarland said that taking Rutba from ISIS will allow the reopening of the main road from Amman to Baghdad, which he said is a significant economic lifeline for Iraq.
“Although it’s a small town, it’s an important success for the Iraqi security forces,” he said.
Another U.S. officer, Marine Brig. Gen. Bill Mullen, said in a separate interview that the decisive action in Rutba was U.S. airstrikes outside the town that seemed to persuade ISIS to flee rather than put up substantial resistance.
He said there were an estimated “couple of hundred” ISIS militants in Rutba prior to the Iraqi assault and that by the time the Iraqis arrived all but about 30 had fled north to the city of al-Qaim or across the border into Syria.
Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad, said the Iraqis had sent about 1,000 troops to Rutba. They were a combination of federal police, Sunni tribal fighters, border security forces and members of the Counter-Terrorism Force.
Warren said ISIS had used Rutba as a staging area for weaponry and foreign fighters flowing into Iraq.
Beyond the recapturing of Rutba, U.S. officials were focused mainly on preparing Iraqi security forces for an assault on Mosul, which is ISIS’s main stronghold in the country.
Major General Hadi Razij, head of Anbar police, said on Thursday elite commandos had attacked from the south while police, tribal fighters and the Iraqi army pushed from the north.
“We managed to liberate Rutba district, eliminating many suicide bombers and car bombs,” he told state television.
Razij said troops had also reached Camp Korean Village, a former U.S. military base about 40 km further west towards the border, and continued to clear the international highway.