BAGHDAD —Islamic State fighters took control of key sites Friday in the heart of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s largest province, in what appeared to mark a significant blow to a U.S.-backed military campaign to retake territory from the militants.
The Islamic State offensive — which began with ambush-style attacks after sundown Thursday — touched off panicked attempts to flee the city and avoid the militant’s tightening noose on routes to safety.
“It was just like scenes of carnage in a World War II movie with bombing all around and dead people in the streets,” said Ali Dulaimi, a 28-year-old student at Anbar University.
He fled central Ramadi for calmer neighborhoods with his three brothers and parents, but has been unable to find way out of the city.
“There were dead people lying all over the street as we ran away,” he said.
A senior police official, Maj. Omar Khamis al-Dahl, said the death toll includes more than 60 police.
Ramadi’s fate also points to wider questions about the ability of Iraqi ground forces to overcome the well-armed extremists on other fronts around the country.
It also could restore a major foothold for the Islamic State less than 70 miles west of Baghdad in the crucial Anbar Province, which has been the scene of bloodshed and seesaw battles since the U.S.-led invasion more than 12 years ago.
Fighting gripped Ramadi throughout the day, but it appeared the Islamic State militiamen had the upper hand.
The militants seized the government compound in downtown Ramadi and hoisted the group’s black flag. Battles then moved to pockets of the city still held by Iraq forces, including a military base that serves as an operations hub for Anbar.
There was no immediate sign of major U.S.-led airstrikes, which have been waged against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since last year.
On the Iraqi side, the Ramadi battles also suggested that pro-government forces — including the military and Iranian-backed Shiite militias — remain hindered by poor coordination, corruption and sectarian squabbles, analysts say.
Dozens of soldiers fled the city overnight Thursday during the initial stages of the Islamic State attack, which involved heavy artillery and multiple car bombings, said Dahl. More than 60 police officers have been killed in the fighting, and hundreds of police and soldiers were surrounded in a military compound, he said.
The attack on Ramadi comes more than a month after pro-government forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, drove Islamic State militants out of the city of Tikrit, an advance that officials in Baghdad touted as a major victory.
The government has hoped to push northward to drive Islamic State forces out of Mosul, a stronghold of the militants since they captured the city in June 2014.
“We have not received reinforcements from the government, and there will be a massacre of these people like there was in Speicher,” said Dahl, the Ramadi officer. He referred to a former U.S. military base near Tikrit where an estimated 1,700 Iraqi soldiers were captured and killed en masse by the Islamic State last summer…