In this Friday, Dec. 25, 2015 photo, smoke rises from Islamic State positions following a U.S.-led coalition airstrike as Iraqi Security forces advance their position in downtown Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad. Iraqi forces entered the Huz at dawn, an area housing a government compound in the center of Ramadi, part of a major offensive aimed at dislodging the Islamic State terrorist militia from the western city, an Iraqi official said. (AP Photo)
Tribal leaders: ISIS still controls 25% of Ramadi
02:07 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

"Mosul is different than Ramadi, it's a big, big, big city," U.S.-led coalition official says

Iraqi Prime Minister says 2016 "will be the year we drive ISIS out of Iraq"

Iraqi forces are still trying to clear remaining ISIS fighters out of Ramadi

Baghdad, Iraq CNN  — 

After retaking most of the key city of Ramadi from ISIS militants, Iraqi leaders say they are setting their sights on an even bigger prize: Mosul.

Iraqi forces have driven ISIS jihadists out of the heart of Ramadi, which the Sunni extremist group seized in May in a humiliating setback for the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition that’s backing it.

Significant pockets of ISIS resistance remain in Ramadi, still controlling as much as 25% of it as of Tuesday, local tribal leaders said. But that didn’t stop Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from visiting the shattered city and raising the national flag.

Next year “will be the year we drive ISIS out of Iraq,” he declared.

With efforts to finish clearing ISIS out of Ramadi still expected to take weeks, it seemed like a bold statement, especially in light of the militants’ habit of hiding among local populations and booby-trapping territory they give up.

Differences between Mosul and Ramadi

Reclaiming Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, will be a crucial step in trying to achieve Abadi’s ambitious goal. CNN’s Nima Elbagir, on her way to Ramadi, said it appeared that “very little” of the city’s infrastructure remained.

She said Ramadi had been retaken with the help of hundreds of airstrikes.

Mosul, a city of more than 1 million people about 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Baghdad, fell to ISIS in June 2014 as Iraqi security forces fled en masse in a stunning defeat that underscored the Islamic militant group’s rapidly expanding menace.

U.S. officials appear to be more cautious about the scale of the challenge than their jubilant Iraqi counterparts.

“Mosul is different than Ramadi, it’s a big, big, big city, and it is going to take a lot of effort,” said Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS. “It’s going to take more training, it’s going to take more equipment and it’s going to take patience.”

ISIS leader rallies followers as group faces setbacks

Squeezing ISIS out of Falluja

He expressed optimism, though, that Iraqi forces would be able to hold on to their gains in Ramadi and progress in efforts to retake nearby Falluja, another important city in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Anbar province.

“The fight for Falluja is ongoing. Right now, the Iraqi Security Forces are approaching Falluja from three directions,” he said.

“Essentially, they encircle the city, almost like a boa constrictor, and they will then squeeze in closer and closer into that city until eventually they are able to finally clear it, as we saw in Ramadi,” Warren told reporters.

Falluja saw some of the harshest fighting between U.S. forces and ISIS’ predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, back in 2004. And it may prove to be a rallying point for jihadists once again.

Rebuilding a bombed-out city

The Iraqi military’s success in Ramadi was notable for not relying on the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that were key to retaking the city of Tikrit from ISIS in March.

“There were no Shia militias involved in this operation for Ramadi,” Warren said.

That approach was seen as vital to avoiding an escalation of the sectarian tensions that have helped ISIS’ Sunni extremism gain such a stubborn foothold in parts of Iraq.

Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is hoping that by bringing local Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province into the political process, it can help prevent Ramadi and other areas from slipping back into ISIS’ grasp.

Local officials will face a raft of challenges to rebuilding the ruined city, where the U.S.-led coalition says it has carried out more than 630 airstrikes in the campaign to retake it from ISIS since July.

The city, which tens of thousands of people fled during months of fighting, will need to restore basic infrastructure like electricity and running water, as well as its residents’ sense of security.

Expelling ISIS from Ramadi: Why it matters

CNN’s Nima Elbagir reported from Baghdad, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Elise Labott contributed to this report.