Iraqi forces closed in on Ramadi Tuesday and launched an operation aimed at cutting off the jihadists in Anbar province before a major offensive to retake the city.
Ten days after the Islamic State (ISIS) group's shock capture of the capital of Iraq's largest province, a spokesman said the latest operation was only a preparatory move before an assault on Ramadi, reports AFP.
The operation will see a mix of security forces and paramilitaries move south towards the city from Salaheddin province, said Hashed al-Shaabi spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi.
The Hashed al-Shaabi ("popular mobilization" in Arabic) is an umbrella group for mostly Shi'ite militia and volunteers, which the government called in after ISIS captured Ramadi on May 17.
"The operation's goal is to liberate those regions between Salaheddin and Anbar and try to isolate the province of Anbar," Assadi told AFP.
He said it had been dubbed "Operation Labaik ya Hussein," which roughly translates as "We are at your service, Hussein" and refers to one of the most revered imams in Shi'ite Islam.
The Hashed said 4,000 men were heading to the northern edge of Ramadi.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his US allies had been reluctant to deploy Iran-backed Shi'ite militia in Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province.
Anbar's provincial capital had resisted ISIS assaults for more than a year but fell earlier this month after a massive jihadist offensive and a chaotic retreat by security forces.
The ISIS controls most of Anbar, a huge province which borders territory also under its control in neighboring Syria.
Pockets of government control include some eastern areas near the capital, the city of Haditha, parts of the town of Al-Baghdadi and the Al-Asad air base, where hundreds of US military advisers are stationed.
Regular forces and Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitaries also made progress south and west of Ramadi, an army lieutenant colonel told AFP, and retook an area called Al-Taesh.
"The Iraqi security forces and Hashed al-Shaabi have now cut off all supply routes for ISIS in Ramadi from the south," provincial council member Arkan Khalaf al-Tarmuz said.
Washington on Monday moved to appease Baghdad after Iraq's leadership reacted angrily to comments by the Pentagon chief accusing Iraqi forces of "lacking the will to fight."
Ashton Carter's remarks to the CNN news channel were widely perceived as unfair in Iraq, where some forces have put up valiant resistance to ISIS assaults.
In a call to Abadi, the White House quoted Vice President Joe Biden as saying he "recognized the enormous sacrifice and bravery of Iraqi forces over the past 18 months in Ramadi and elsewhere."
Tehran, the main backer of the paramilitary groups that were sent to Anbar's rescue, was gloating and suggested it was Washington that was indecisive in its approach to ISIS.
"How can you be in that country under the pretext of protecting the Iraqis and do nothing? This is no more than being an accomplice in a plot," said General Qassem Suleimani, the Revolutionary Guards' commander of foreign operations.
The US-led coalition has carried out more than 3,000 strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria over the past 10 months.
Baghdad and Washington had boasted that ISIS was a waning force after months of territorial losses, but the fall of Ramadi signaled that the jihadist group may have been written off too soon.
Its seizure of the city prompted 55,000 residents to flee, according to the United Nations.
Many of them have been prevented from crossing into other provinces, for fear they have been infiltrated by ISIS fighters.
Some Sunni Arab politicians and activists have described the move as unconstitutional and discriminatory against the minority community.
The International Rescue Committee said the restriction was forcing some people to return to conflict areas.
"Thousands of people fleeing Ramadi are stuck at checkpoints or being denied entry to safe areas," IRC's Syrian crisis response regional director Mark Schnellbaecher said.
"For some people the situation has become so hopeless that they are returning to the conflict in Ramadi."
In a twin attack last week, ISIS seized Palmyra in eastern Syria and the nearby ruins of the ancient city, considered one of the world's archaeological jewels.
A video posted online by a channel that works only in ISIS-controlled areas showed the UNESCO-listed site, including its famous theater and colonnade.
The 90-second undated raw video also includes a brief shot of a street, in which no ISIS fighters or flags can be seen.