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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces were preparing to push further into the center of the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi as the Sunni militant group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed 11 people on Wednesday.
Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, the Iraqi troops have struggled to roll back Islamic State gains since the militants seized large swaths of the country's north and west, along with territories in neighboring Syria, in the summer of 2014.
Progress in Iraq's vast Anbar province, west of Baghdad, has been particularly slow, but on Tuesday, Iraqi forces seized an IS operations center and the strategical Tamim neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite mosque, killing at least 11 people and wounding 20 Wednesday, an assault that was promptly claimed by IS. Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan said the attacker detonated his bomb in the mosque doorway as worshippers were leaving after midday prayers.
The IS' claim came in a statement circulated online by its supporters. It bore the group's logo and resembled previous claims issued by the extremists. IS has repeatedly targeted Iraq's Shiite majority, who the Sunni extremists view as apostates.
In Anbar, Maj. Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, the head of Iraqi military operations in the province, said his troops were readying to push "toward the government complex and the Houz area" in central Ramadi.
He told The Associated Press on Wednesday the neighborhood is the backbone of the IS group's structure in Ramadi.
The troops' advances on Tuesday were the most significant incursion into Ramadi since the city fell to IS in May. There largest obstacle going forward is crossing the Euphrates River north of the city and its Warar tributary to the west.
Since overrunning Ramadi, the Islamic State group has destroyed all the bridges around the city. It also demolished the Anbar operations command and fanned out into the city's residential areas to set up less conspicuous centers of command.
"When Ramadi fell in May, it was the last time we saw Daesh take offensive action here in Iraq in any sort of concerted way," said Brett McGurk, the official in charge of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group, speaking to reporters Wednesday from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The fall of Ramadi was the biggest blow to Iraqi forces since IS captured Iraq's second largest city of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The government announced a counteroffensive shortly after Ramadi's fall, but progress has been sluggish.
McGurk cautioned that further advances may also be slow going. "These things take time, Ramadi is a very difficult environment," he said, adding that it took U.S. forces six months to "take and stabilize Ramadi" from al-Qaida, the Islamic State's precursor.
"Daesh is now resorting to holding the center of the city while taking human shields as hostages," McGurk added, referring to IS by its Arabic language acronym.
Ramadi residents have reported that IS controlled checkpoints in the city have prevented many from fleeing. Estimates of civilians remaining in the city range anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000.
Al-Mahlawi, the Iraqi commander in Anbar, said coalition and Iraqi aircraft contributed significantly to the operation, opening "the way before we sent combat units in." The warplanes "inflicted heavy losses on" IS militants, destroying both "equipment and their spirits."
Muhannad Haimour, the spokesman for the Anbar governor's office, said he's receiving reports that the IS organization inside Ramadi is collapsing.
"They are trying to flee the city," he said, citing residents who have been unable to escape, "we believe there are only 300 fighters left."
But even with little IS resistance in terms of numbers, Haimour said clearing territory once it's been taken back will likely be time-consuming.
"We are very hopeful that Ramadi will be liberated before the end of this year," he said. "So we're talking weeks, not months."