BAGHDAD — Iraqi military forces said Thursday that they have retaken the desert town of Rutbah from the Islamic State after a two-day battle during which commanders saw limited resistance from the militants.
The Iraqi flag has been raised over the local council building in the town, the Iraqi military said in a statement.
Lying about 240 miles west of Baghdad deep in the desert, Rutbah sits on transit routes to Jordan and Syria. For that reason it has an “outsized strategic value,” Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman, said in a briefing with reporters Wednesday. Recapturing it helps the economies of both Iraq and Jordan, while denying the Islamic State a “critical support zone,” he said.
“There was almost no resistance at all,” Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ameer al-Khazraji, an officer with Iraq’s elite counterterrorism force, said after entering Rutbah. “We thought that it would be a fierce fight, but we were surprised that the enemy entirely collapsed.”
Aside from a few attempted car bombings, it was like entering “an empty area,” Khazraji said.
The recapture is one in a series of victories for government forces in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and some Iraqi military and militia leaders say plans are in place to build on the momentum and attack Fallujah next. A drawn-out offensive for Fallujah, the first city in the country to fall to the Islamic State and the site of one of the bloodiest battles for U.S. Marines during the Iraq War, could delay an already stuttering buildup to retake the northern city of Mosul.
Rutbah was captured by the Islamic State in June 2014 shortly after Mosul fell, but its desert surroundings were home to the group’s training camps and bases before the group captured territory. It has long been a base for smuggling and militancy and was a stronghold of al-Qaeda in the past.
“Taking Rutbah will weaken the enemy because Rutbah is home to their leaders and training camps,” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, spokesman for the Iraqi military. The open desert ground makes it difficult for the militants to defend, he said.
Some analysts have said that the Islamic State’s lack of resistance in Rutbah may mean that it is hunkering down to protect its key Iraq strongholds in Mosul and Fallujah.
The militants have also waged a bombing campaign in Baghdad that U.S. and Iraqi military officials say is designed to delay efforts to retake those cities.
But the Baghdad bombing campaign has also added weight to arguments by those who have been pushing for a Fallujah operation before any campaign for Mosul. The city is just 40 miles from Baghdad.
“Our next operation will be in Fallujah,” Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, a powerful Shiite militia that also controls the country’s Interior Ministry, said in a speech Wednesday. Other militia leaders followed suit with statements saying that preparations had been made for a battle for the city.
“Fallujah will be before Mosul,” said Col. Firas Hussein Abed, an Iraqi army commander in the 6th Division who said additional Iraqi troops were deployed in the area. “The plans are in place,” he said, adding that he expected an operation to start in about two weeks.
Iraqi forces have announced operations to retake the city multiple times in the past, but they have always stalled on its outskirts.
Sabah al-Noori, a spokesman for Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, said he expected a Fallujah operation “soon.”
“We have a plan for Fallujah, and there are preparations,” he said. “I think after Rutbah we’ll be going there, but the timing of the start of the battle is according to the wishes of the prime minister.”