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Members of Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service flash the "V" for victory sign on December 28, 2015 at the heavily damaged government complex after they recaptured the city of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, about 110 kilometers west of Baghdad, from Islamic States group jihadists. Iraq declared the city of Ramadi liberated from the Islamic State group and raised the national flag over its government complex after clinching a landmark victory against the jihadists. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
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Why does ISIS want Ramadi?

Story highlights

Ramadi residents say most ISIS fighters fled or died as Iraq's army moved in

One witness believes ISIS wants to use remaining residents as human shields

Hundreds of families escaped to Habbaniyah -- but many are still trapped inside key city

(CNN) —  

Standing in the entrance of her tent on a chilly winter night in the Iraqi desert, Nada Saleh describes the terrifying moment her family almost became part of ISIS’ last stand in Ramadi.

As government forces mounted their final assault to retake the key city – controlled by the Sunni terror group since May – ISIS began to pull families out of their homes and move them to the eastern part of the city.

Saleh says she and her six children watched as her husband stared down the militants, refusing to allow them to take his family.

Hundreds of families have fled fighting in Ramadi for a camp 25 miles east in Habbaniyah.
Hundreds of families have fled fighting in Ramadi for a camp 25 miles east in Habbaniyah.

The fighters dragged Saleh’s husband away with a sword to his neck. Although he eventually managed to escape, he’s been taken in for government questioning.

But the few hundred families massed here at this camp in Habbaniyah, a 25-mile drive east of Ramadi in Anbar Province, are the lucky ones.

Just a day ago these people were still inside Ramadi – and although they’re exhausted and cold, they’re much safer here than at home.

Witness: “Dogs are eating their heads”

The Iraqis say roughly 1,000 families remain trapped in Ramadi’s eastern districts, some of which is still controlled by ISIS. The government believes they are being used as human shields.

One young woman who arrived in Habbaniyah with her family last night described desperate conditions as they fled Ramadi.

“We have been without food for two months, no water for the past 10 days,” she told CNN.

“We were surprised when we left our home and drove outside the city, we only saw destroyed houses and roads. We could not recognize the city. It looked like another city.”

Hundreds of families have fled fierce fighting in Ramadi to a camp at Habbaniyah.
RAJA RAZEK/CNN
Hundreds of families have fled fierce fighting in Ramadi to a camp at Habbaniyah.

The woman said most of the ISIS fighters in Ramadi either fled or were killed as the army moved in.

“We saw them when we left our houses, we saw their dead bodies in the streets,” she said. “Dogs are eating their heads. We only saw their hands and their legs.”

The woman and her family would have left sooner, but ISIS was threatening to kill anyone who tried to escape.

“We were waiting for the Iraqi army to secure a safe path for us. They told us not to leave until they do it for us,” she said. “I believe they (ISIS) wanted to use us as human shields, along with our kids.”

Ramadi in ruins

The woman is among the tens of thousands of people who have left the city during the devastating, months-long effort to snatch it back from the clutches of ISIS.

Iraqi forces, backed by Western air power, finally drove ISIS out of the heart of Ramadi earlier this week.

Iraqi TV showed soldiers raising the national flag over Ramadi’s government compound to mark the Iraqi military’s first major win over ISIS, which controls significant territory in Iraq and Syria.

But during the live coverage, explosions and gunfire could be still be heard in the background. And although up to a quarter of the city remains in the militants’ hands, it didn’t stop Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from declaring that 2016 “will be the year we drive ISIS out of Iraq.”

Local officials will face a raft of challenges in 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 will need to restore basic infrastructure like electricity and running water, as well as its residents’ sense of security.

Back at Habbaniyah, night falls as men gather around a makeshift fire and women and children huddle in their tents.

The camp was built to hold all the families rescued from Ramadi. For now, many of these tents – too many – stand empty.

But while the winter chill here is bitter, and although many of these desperate people have lost their life’s possessions, just to be here at all – to be safe – is enough for now.

CNN’s Nima Elbagir and Raja Razek reported from Habbinaya, and Nick Thompson wrote from London.