Islamic State (IS) fighters captured the government compound in Iraq's Ramadi on Friday, just hours after the group released an audio recording claimed to feature its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which called on supporters to take up arms in their home countries or join the his self-described caliphate.
The group has threatened the city, the capital of Ramadi province, for some time, but launched a widespread offensive on Thursday and Friday, including several car bombs. It eventually seized the complex at around 2pm local time, a police major told AFP.
IS now hold almost all of the city, although ongoing clashes were reported.
"The situation in Ramadi is dire, but the city has not fallen and the battle against criminal Daesh [IS] is still ongoing," Anbar governor Sohaib al-Rawi said on Twitter.
Government forces seemingly still hold a military command center west of Ramadi, but an army major stationed close by told Reuters that IS had cut their supply routes, making the situation even more difficult. Some elite counter-terrorism forces are now surrounded in the city's central Malaab district, he added.
"If the government does not send any reinforcements and the coalition air force does not rescue us, I can confirm we will lose all Ramadi by midnight," the major said. "A massacre will take place and all of us will be slaughtered. We have been defending the city for months and we don't deserve to end like this. It's humiliating."
Losing Ramadi to IS would be a major blow to the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had said the city would be targeted next after loyalist forces pushed IS out of Tikrit last month.
VICE News was unable to verify the audio recording purportedly featuring Baghdadi that emerged on Thursday. Yet if the voice is his it would be his first appearance since November and come soon after reports that suggested he'd been seriously injured in an airstrike launched by the American-led anti-IS coalition. Some suggested he may even have been killed, or handed over leadership to a deputy.
"And we call upon every Muslim in every place to perform hijrah (emigrate) to the Islamic State or fight in his land wherever that may be," says the recording, which was released via the group's al-Furqan media arm.
Baghdadi adds that travelling to IS-held territory is an obligation for Muslims. "Has the time not come for you to return to your religion and your jihad and thereby bring back your glory, honor, rights, and leadership? Has the time not come for you to know that there is no might nor honor nor safety nor rights for you except in the shade of the Caliphate?
"O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war.
Despite it not being immediately possible to date the recording, Baghdadi mentions the ongoing situation in Yemen, where a Saudi Arabia-led coalition is launching airstrikes on anti-government rebels. The IS leader described the attacks as taking place at the behest to the West.
"Their [Saudi's] war is nothing but an attempt to prove themselves once again to their masters from amongst the Jews and Crusaders. It is nothing but a desperate attempt to turn the Muslims away from the Islamic State," he said.
IS swept across large swathes of northern Iraq, including the second city of Mosul, in a shock summer offensive last year, before declaring a caliphate in the area under its control. It went on to push to within miles of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, in August, prompting an American-led air campaign which helped reverse some of their gains.
The group has since suffered a number of defeats, including being pushed out of Tikrit in Iraq and the Kurdish border enclave of Kobane in Syria. Baghdadi warned in the recording that the group's defacto capital of Raqaa in Syria could be the next target.
"Be patient and firm, and be cautious, for the enemies of Allah are mobilizing, thundering, increasing, and threatening the people of Mosul. We believe that their mobilization will be for Raqqah and Aleppo before Mosul. So be cautious."
The militants have also pushed back, including in Anbar province, where thousands fled its advance on Ramadi. Baghdadi urged the city's displaced residents to return. So return to your lands, and remain in your homes, and seek shelter - after first seeking shelter with Allah - with your people in the Islamic State, for you will find therein, by Allah's permission, a warm embrace and a safe refuge. For you are our people. We defend you, your honor, and your wealth."
Baghdadi finishes the message by mentioning groups who had pledged allegiance to IS in countries including Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Yemen.
"O soldiers of the Islamic State, be firm, for you are upon the truth. Seek help through patience, for victory comes with patience and triumph is for those who are patient. Be patient, because the Crusaders are bleeding to death, the R?fidah are faltering, and the Jews are horrified and in dread. Your enemies have become weaker than they were yesterday - by Allah's grace - and are growing weaker and weaker, and all praise be to Allah."
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