WASHINGTON — U.S. airstrikes in recent days killed an estimated 350 Islamic State fighters holed up in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, an American military spokesman said Thursday, suggesting the extremists lost as much as half of their defending force.
Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon that there had been an estimated 600 to 1,000 fighters for the Islamic State, or ISIS, inside Ramadi, which the extremist group captured in May. Despite this depletion of Islamic State forces, U.S. officials are reluctant to predict how long it will take to reclaim the city, which is the capital of Anbar province and a key to the Iraqi government's hopes of restoring its borders.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking separately Thursday, said Iraqi progress in retaking Ramadi has been "disappointingly slow."
"I am certain it will fall, and we will assist in the making of it fall," Carter said of Ramadi. He added that the United States would be willing to commit U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters to the battle for Ramadi, if the Iraqi government requests it and if it would "make a strategically decisive difference."
Asked about that comment later, Warren said, "Apache helicopters are ready," if Washington and Baghdad give the go-ahead.
U.S. officials have frequently expressed frustration with how long it has taken the Iraqi army and other security forces to press an offensive in Ramadi. In recent days, though, they've pointed to important battlefield progress.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces seized an ISIS operations center and the strategical Tamim neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.
With about 10,000 troops, including federal police, committed to the fight for Ramadi, the Iraqis vastly outnumber the defenders. Iraqi Maj Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, head of military operations in Anbar province, said Thursday there are approximately 300 ISIS fighters trapped in the center of Ramadi, which lies on the Euphrates River.
Separately, Warren announced that U.S. airstrikes in late November killed three senior ISIS leaders.