Iraqi forces have advanced into the center of ISIS-held Ramadi as part of a final push to retake the city, the spokesman for Iraq's counterterrorism forces said Tuesday.
Sabah al-Nuaman told NBC News that counterterrorism forces were able to cross the Euphrates River into the center of the city, backed by cover from the air. He said 12 ISIS fighters were killed in the sudden assault.
Ramadi Under Siege as Iraqi Forces Attempt to Reclaim It From ISISDec. 23, 201501:53
Iraqi forces were less than a half-mile away from the main government complex after advancing through four key areas of southern Ramadi, al-Nuaman said.
He expects the Iraqi soldiers to recapture the entire city in two to three days — a delicate operation because of the array of attack options by ISIS, from IEDs to car bombs to suicide attackers and snipers.
"During the advance of our forces, there were no families at all, all locals have left those areas and this was of a great help because we do not want to lose any citizen(s) at all," al-Nuaman said.
He added that there are fewer than 100 ISIS fighters still in the city. Some of those believed to be Iraqi "shaved their beards and left the city with locals, but our intelligence units are aware of them and will not give them a chance to move freely," al-Nuaman said.
ISIS seized Ramadi in May in an embarrassing defeat for Iraqi forces which raised questions from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter over whether Iraqis lacked the will to fight.
Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake Ramadi earlier this month, advancing towards the center of the city and surrounding it with thousands of fighters.
FROM DEC. 18: Iraqi Airstrikes Smash ISIS Targets in RamadiDec. 18, 201500:39
Military planes dropped leaflets on Ramadi over the weekend urging residents to leave in advance of an imminent assault to oust ISIS.
U.S. officials have warned that driving the terrorist group from the largest city in Iraq's western Anbar Province would take time.
"It's a slow process," the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Col. Steve Warren, told a recent briefing. "And urban fighting is tough."