RAMADI, Iraq – The dust of thousands of wrecked buildings drifts over the Iraqi city of Ramadi. Once home to around 1 million people, it stands virtually empty.
Apartment block after apartment block has been levelled. A giant highway overpass at the main entrance to the city lies crushed. Every bridge over the Euphrates is toppled. The walls of homes are shredded, exposing furniture and bedding. Graffiti on the houses still standing warn of explosives inside.
When Iraqi government forces backed by U.S.-led warplanes wrested this city from Islamic State militants after eight months of IS control, it was heralded as a major victory. But the cost of winning Ramadi has been the city itself.
The scope of the devastation is beyond any of the other Iraqi cities recaptured so far from the jihadi group. Photographs provided to The Associated Press by satellite imagery and analytics company DigitalGlobe Inc. show more than 3,000 buildings and nearly 400 roads and bridges were damaged or destroyed between May 2015, when Ramadi fell to IS, and Jan. 22, after most of the fighting ended. Over roughly the same period, nearly 800 civilians were killed in clashes, airstrikes and executions.
The destruction was caused by IS-laid explosives and hundreds of airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi army artillery. On top of that, the Islamic State group is increasingly using a scorched earth strategy as it loses ground in Iraq. When IS fighters withdraw, they blow up buildings and wire thousands of others with explosives. The bombs are so costly and time-consuming to defuse that much of recently liberated Iraq is now unlivable.
"All they leave is rubble," said Maj. Mohammad Hussein, whose counterterrorism battalion was one of the first to move into Ramadi. "You can't do anything with rubble."
As a result, officials with the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq are rethinking the way they fight to regain territory from IS. Coalition planes are using fewer airstrikes and smaller, more targeted munitions in urban areas. Explosives disposal teams are undergoing greater training to deal with what IS leaves behind.
The new approach is key as Iraqi forces prepare an offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city, held by IS since mid-2014.
"They know they can't just turn Mosul into a parking lot," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad who has attended meetings with coalition and Iraqi defense officials regarding the Mosul operation. The diplomat commented on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Mosul is roughly two-thirds larger in size than Ramadi, and up to 1.5 million residents remain in the city — a far higher number than were still in Ramadi as Iraqi forces fought to regain it. That puts a considerable number of civilians in harm's way.
Ramadi, on the Euphrates River west of Baghdad, is the capital of Iraq's Sunni heartland, Anbar province. In May 2015, IS militants captured it with a barrage of truck bombs and suicide bombings that overwhelmed government forces.
The extremists levelled the main provincial security headquarters, the Anbar Operations Command center, with explosives. They destroyed government buildings, took over homes, dug tunnels and blew up the houses of people associated with the government. The electrical grid was almost completely destroyed and the water network heavily damaged. Militants blew up the city's remaining bridges and two dams.
They turned Anbar University into a headquarters. When Iraqi forces retook the university later, the retreating militants set fires that burned for days. Much of the campus is now in ruins.
Coalition aircraft dropped more than 600 bombs on the city during the eight-month campaign to recapture it. The final assault came in December, as government forces moved into its central districts.
Trying to uproot fighters, aircraft and Iraqi artillery unleashed devastation. Haji Ziad Square, for example, is a strategic intersection with lines of sight down major thoroughfares. So IS fighters deployed heavily there, and approaching Iraqi forces called in intense strikes to help clear them. Not a structure in the square was left standing.
In a district on Ramadi's western edge that was a key route for entering Iraqi forces, at least a dozen large residential towers have been levelled.
Ramadi's residents today are scattered, living in Baghdad and villages nearby.
A small resort town on nearby Habbaniyah Lake — where as recently as 2012 Iraqis came to jet-ski and boat — is now a camp for thousands of people displaced from Ramadi and other Anbar communities.
Umm Khaled, a 30-year-old woman at the resort, said her husband went back to Ramadi after the militants were driven out to see what was left of their home. He brought back pictures on his phone.
"It was like there was nothing. And it's not just our house — the entire neighborhood," said Umm Khaled, pregnant with her fourth child. She did not want her full name used, fearing for the safety of relatives still under IS rule.
With no place to live but the camp, they've run through their savings. They don't know how they will rebuild.
"God willing, we will go back home," Umm Khaled said, "but probably we will stay in these camps for a long time."
Butler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Ali Hameed in Baghdad, Osama Sami in Ramadi, Iraq and AP photographer Bilal Hussein in Beirut contributed to this report.
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Online: The DigitalGlobe imagery of Ramadi: http://djzwe7ud6gp1s.cloudfront.net/