BAGHDAD — After clearing the last neighborhoods of the battered city of Ramadi recently, Iraqi special forces packed up to leave but expected to move on quickly to their next offensive — the walled market town of Hit.
Located 30 miles northwest of Ramadi, also in Anbar province, Hit has been occupied by the Islamic State since the fall of 2014. About 12,000 civilians are estimated to remain, local officials say.
While a buildup of Iraqi army forces has begun farther north in preparation for a Mosul offensive, special forces known as Iraq’s “Golden Division” have a more immediate target. Bolstered by a win in Ramadi, commanders say they plan to take full advantage of a state of disarray among the militants in the area — prioritizing Hit, while debate continues on whether to move farther west to Fallujah.
“We will start from western Anbar, from Hit,” said Lt. Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, a special forces commander. “I have a report on my desk with all the boring details. It’s going to be an easy mission.”
An operation for Hit will begin “very soon,” said Maj. Gen. Ismail Mahlawi, head of Anbar Operations Command. “Maybe even days.”
“Right now, they know they are the next target, but there’s nothing new they can use against us,” he said.
Leaflets have been dropped on the city three times, warning residents to leave, though the Islamic State is attempting to prevent families from escaping, commanders and tribesmen said.
Asadi said military intelligence already indicated that large numbers of the militant group’s leaders have fled the city — including most foreign fighters.
But Sgt. Maj. Donald Sparks, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said there are signs that the Islamic State is reinforcing its hold.
“We have actually seen fighters and equipment moving into the area,” he said. Hit is estimated to have 300 to 400 militants in the town, with more in the surrounding area, he said.
As with the offensive for Ramadi, Iraqi special forces will take the lead. They will be supported by the Iraqi army’s 7th Division, police and tribal fighters, Asadi and other commanders said.
The Islamic State’s takeover of Hit and outlying areas was particularly bloody. Members of the Albu Nimr tribe fought for more than 10 months to defend the city, and hundreds were killed when the city fell. The tribesmen complained that they received little support from the government and were forced to buy their own ammunition.
Sheikh Naim al-Gaoud, a leader of the Albu Nimr, said his tribesmen are still not being sufficiently armed and equipped to assist in the operation and hold ground. He said that 1,000 members of his tribe were executed by the militants.
“By God’s will, we’ll take it back,” he said.
In Iraq’s military circles, there has long been a debate over the order of battle — Anbar first or the Islamic State’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, in Nineveh province to the north, or simultaneous operations in more than one province.
While some had argued that Fallujah, already heavily besieged, could wait until after Mosul, a growing number of Iraqi commanders are now arguing otherwise.
“We’ve changed our thinking and think we need to continue to invest in the collapse of Daesh in Anbar,” Mahlawi said, using the group’s Arabic acronym. “Anbar will be liberated entirely, then the forces will move north.”
However, Iraq’s minister of defense has indicated that he foresees a Mosul offensive in the first half of this year, and Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has said he plans to eradicate the Islamic State’s grip on the country before the end of the year.
The Iraqi army has already begun sending forces to Makhmour, south of Mosul, to begin operations to besiege the city, and a command center run jointly with Kurdish forces has been set up.
But U.S. officials have said that it is hard to predict when a battle for the city itself will be launched and that it could potentially be far off.
It depends, to an extent, on when the Iraqi military can free up its most elite fighters. In addition to heavy bombardment from the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi ground operation for Ramadi relied heavily on Iraqi special forces units — a force of just a few thousand soldiers that is bearing the brunt of the urban warfare.
The battle plans were for those units to press from the west, while federal police and the Iraqi army’s 8th Division advanced from the east.
“We waited for them, but they hadn’t done anything, so in the end we received orders to do it ourselves,” said Asadi, the special forces commander. “We were hoping that the other forces would do more, but they did nothing.”
In a briefing last month, U.S. military spokesman Col. Steve Warren said that whether to launch simultaneous or sequential operations is for the Iraqi army to decide, though the United States has given advice on “how we believe that ought to go.”
“Our fundamental concept is to place simultaneous pressure on this enemy across the entire battlefield, the depth and breadth of this battlefield,” he said. “Keep pressure on this enemy, all the time, everywhere.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.