The Islamic State (ISIS) group on Sunday sealed its capture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi after a dramatic pullout by Iraqi forces, but was prevented by Syrian troops from taking the heritage site of Palmyra, reports AFP.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi urged government forces to hold fast in Ramadi and prevent ISIS from making further gains, saying they would have air cover and Shiite militia reinforcements.
The effective loss of the capital of Iraq's largest province of Anbar marked one of Baghdad's worst setbacks since it began a nationwide offensive last year to reclaim territory lost to the jihadists in June 2014.
ISIS said in an Internet post it fully controlled Ramadi, after a local official admitted the operations command center there had fallen.
"God has enabled the soldiers of the caliphate to cleanse all of Ramadi… after storming the 8th brigade. They (now) control it along with a battalion of tanks and missile launchers and in addition to the Anbar operations command," the ISIS statement said.
Muhannad Haimour, spokesman and adviser to the provincial governor, said "Anbar operations command has been cleared".
A colonel among troops who had withdrawn added, "Daesh has just taken full control of all main security bases", using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Abadi’s spokesman, however, said troops, tribesmen and elite forces "must hold their positions and preserve them and not allow Daesh to extend to other areas in Ramadi."
"There is continuous air cover that will help ground troops there hold their positions while waiting for support from other forces and the Popular Mobilization Units," he said of an umbrella group for Shiite militias.
Taking full control of Ramadi, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Baghdad, would be the most significant victory this year for ISIS, which has suffered a string of setbacks elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS has threatened to take control of Ramadi for months, and the breakthrough came after a wide offensive on multiple fronts in the province, including an assault using several suicide car bombs in Ramadi last Thursday.
But the group also faced another setback across the border in Syria on Sunday, where government forces drove them out of the ancient oasis town of Palmyra, home to a UNESCO world heritage site.
"ISIS' attack was foiled," provincial governor Talal Barazi said after troops routed the jihadists from the northern part of the modern town of Palmyra which they had seized on Saturday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said, however, that ISIS fighters were still just a kilometer (less than a mile) from the archaeological site and its museum housing priceless artifacts.
It said nearly 300 people have been killed in four days of fighting — 123 soldiers and their allies, 115 ISIS fighters and 57 civilians.
UNESCO has urged both sides to spare Palmyra, which it describes as one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world.
AFP contributed to this report.