Ramadi Iraq offensive
Iraqi counter-terrorism forces drive in the Tameem district of Ramadi AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi troops were preparing to launch an offensive on Ramadi amid reports that Islamic State (Isis) militants holding the city were preventing civilians from leaving. The operation to retake the strategic capital of Anbar province was due to begin in the coming hours state television reported, quoting the army chief of staff.

The announcement came a day after army warplanes dropped leaflets over the city, advising residents to leave within 72 hours. Later, army officials said they had information suggesting the IS (Daesh) jihadi were forcibly preventing any civilian evacuation.

"There are families that managed to escape the gangs of Daesh," Iraqi Defence Ministry spokesman Naseer Nuri, told Reuters. "There is intelligence information from inside the city that they are preventing families from leaving; they plan to use them as human shields."

The spectacular fall of Ramadi, which was seized by outnumbered IS fighters in May this year, was a major setback for the Iraqi government and sparked severe criticism from the US, with Defence Secretary Ashton Carter claiming the defeat showed government troops lacked the will to fight. Baghdad has since repeatedly announced its intention to launch a counterattack and retake the city.

Earlier this month government forces finally made some significant gains, wresting back a large region on the south-western side of the city. The victory in the al-Tameem area was a key breakthrough as Iraqi forces captured the Palestinian Bridge cutting off a key supply route for IS and at the same time opened up a path for the city centre. Only a few hundred IS fighters are believed to be entrenched in the city.