Islamic State (ISIS) fighters seized the government compound in the city of Ramadi on Friday and edged closer to what would be their biggest victory in Iraq this year, officials said, according to AFP.
The loss of the capital of Anbar province, which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had said would be the next target of government forces after wresting back Tikrit last month, would be a major setback.
The government stressed that Ramadi had not fallen yet and announced that a major counter-offensive was under way as Abadi held an emergency meeting with top security officials.
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 on Thursday.
The jihadists seized the government complex at around 2:00 p.m. local time and raised the black flag, a police officer said, giving them nearly full control over Anbar's capital.
ISIS "now occupies the government center in Ramadi and has also raised its flag over the police HQ for Anbar", the police major told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The group itself issued a statement saying its fighters broke into the government complex, and blew up the adjacent buildings of Anbar's governorate and the police headquarters.
A senior tribal leader in charge of the coordination of local fighters with regular government forces also confirmed the government complex had fallen.
"The only (government) forces still fighting are confined to a few pockets in Ramadi but they have no command post anymore," Sheikh Hekmat Suleiman told AFP by phone.
Provincial council member Adhal Obeid al-Fahdawi had described the situation as "critical" moments earlier, and said civilians were fleeing the city center, the second time in a month they have done so following another ISIS offensive in April.
"Families are trying to flee on foot, leaving their cars and homes behind, but most areas around Ramadi are under ISIS control," said Sheikh Jabbar Adjadj al-Assafi, a tribal leader.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi broke a six-month silence on Thursday with an audio recording of a speech in which he played up the Anbar battle.
As did his previous speech, the audio tape recording released on Thursday comes a few days after media reports that Baghdadi might have been seriously wounded in a strike by the coalition bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS, which also controls parts of Syria, swept across the Sunni heartland of Iraq last year before proclaiming a "caliphate" and attracting record numbers of foreign fighters.
An air campaign led by the United States and launched in August helped the central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurds in the north turn the tide on ISIS.
The jihadists have since lost significant ground but still hold Mosul, the country's second city, and Anbar, whose capital lies 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Baghdad.
(Arutz Sheva’s North American desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)