BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki flew to the northern city of Mosul on Wednesday to oversee a big offensive against al Qaeda in what the U.S. military says is the group’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
Iraqi military officials hope the operation will deliver a knockout blow to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants in northern Iraq. The campaign, which is being led by Iraqi security forces, commenced on Saturday.
“This operation will purge Mosul of criminal and terrorist gangs and end the suffering they have brought to people,” Maliki said in a statement.
Iraqi military officials said some 500 suspected insurgents had been detained in raids in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province so far. Vehicle curfews have been imposed.
Al Qaeda militants have regrouped in Nineveh after being pushed out of Baghdad and their former stronghold of western Anbar province by U.S. and Iraqi forces in the past year.
It was unclear how long Maliki would stay in Mosul, but his visit resembles one he made to the southern oil city of Basra in late March to supervise a crackdown on Shi’ite militias there.
That offensive caught U.S. officials in Baghdad off-guard and got off to a rocky start when the Mehdi Army militia of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr put up fierce resistance.
Iraqi troops had to quickly call for U.S. air and ground support. Around 1,000 Iraqi soldiers also deserted.
While Iraqi troops took control of Basra within a week, fighting spread to Baghdad and has continued despite a deal between Sadr’s opposition movement in parliament and the ruling Shi’ite alliance over the weekend to end the violence.
Maliki, himself a Shi’ite, won praise in Washington and support from politicians across Iraqi’s ethnic and sectarian divide for cracking down on Shi’ite militias.
IRAQ FORCES CAN “HANDLE” SECURITY
Hussein al-Falluji, a legislator from the main Sunni Arab bloc, which withdrew from Maliki’s government last year, said the Mosul offensive showed Iraq could rely less on U.S. forces.
“This operation carries a message to many parties inside and outside Iraq … to show that the Iraqi forces are able to handle security,” Falluji told Reuters.
“The prime minister is the commander in chief, therefore he wants to send this message.”
The U.S. military said the Mosul campaign was Iraqi-planned and Iraqi-led but being closely supported by American units.
U.S. officials blame al Qaeda in Iraq for most big bombings in the country, including an attack on a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that set off a wave of sectarian killings that nearly tipped Iraq into all-out civil war.
The build-up of U.S. troops last year and support from Sunni Arab tribes that turned against al Qaeda allowed the military to conduct a series of offensives that largely pushed the militants into northern areas, including Nineveh.
However, U.S. commanders say al Qaeda in Iraq, although weakened, can still carry out large-scale attacks.
Another legislator said the offensive against al Qaeda would help Maliki show he was trying to tackle Iraq’s many problems.
“Maliki’s presence there … shows he is dealing with all Iraqi provinces equally,” said Jabr Habeeb, an independent member of the ruling Shi’ite alliance.
The U.S. military announced this month that improved security in Iraq meant the military could go ahead and draw down the third of the five extra combat brigades that U.S. President George W. Bush sent to Iraq last year in a bid to halt Iraq’s slide into civil war.
The redeployment is part of a wider plan to withdraw the five “surge brigades”, or 20,000 troops, by the end of July. That will still leave some 140,000 American soldiers in Iraq.