Iraq to launch offensive against al-Qaida

Iraqi Prime Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gestures as he announces during a press conference in Karbala, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 25, 2008 that the government was sending troops to Mosul.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 10:27 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 10:27 a.m.

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi prime minister announced Friday that the government was preparing to strike back against al-Qaida in the northern city of Mosul after two days of deadly bombings killed nearly 40 people. He promised the fight "will be decisive."

U.S. and Iraqi forces have staged many operations against insurgents north of Baghdad where levels of violence remain high even as they drop elsewhere in the country.

The announcement by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came after warnings by the U.S. military that Mosul was the last major city where al-Qaida maintains a strong presence after largely being driven from Baghdad and other major population centers.

"Today, our troops started moving toward Mosul ... and the fight there will be decisive," al-Maliki said during an address in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

He did not say how many troops were being sent or provide more details in his wide-ranging speech, an apparent attempt to show his beleaguered administration was assuming control of the situation in Mosul with the U.S. military in the background.

"Now we have a real army. The days when the militants could do anything in front of our armed forces are gone," al-Maliki said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf later told The Associated Press that 3,000 police were being sent as reinforcements for the 16,000 policemen already in Mosul to combat insurgents. But he gave no date for the start of the operation due to security concerns.

He also said additional soldiers would be sent to the area but provided no specifics.

Residents and security officials reported no immediate sign of stepped up security.

The recent violence in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, began Wednesday when an abandoned apartment building believed to be used as a bomb-making factory exploded after the Iraqi army arrived to investigate tips about a weapons cache.

At least 34 people were killed and 224 wounded when the blast tore through surrounding houses in the Zanjili neighborhood, a poverty-ridden district on the west bank of the Tigris River.

A suicide bomber then killed a police chief and two other officers Thursday as they toured the devastation from the previous day. Residents with insurgent sympathies taunted the chief moments before the attack.

Al-Maliki traveled to Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, a day after a roadside bomb targeted a senior aide of Iraq's Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the city.

The aide, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, escaped with a wound to the arm, but two of his bodyguards were killed and two were wounded, according to local police. Al-Maliki met with the white-turbaned cleric, who wore a bandage on his right forearm.

There have been several assassination attempts against al-Sistani's followers in recent months as internal Shiite rivalries increased in the oil-rich southern Iraq, which also is home to some of the majority sect's most sacred shrines.

Al-Qaida and its supporters would find themselves without a major base of operations if ousted from Mosul, which occupies transport crossroads between Baghdad, Syria and other points. But a drawn-out fight could serve to rally insurgents and expose potential security weaknesses where U.S. troops are thin and Iraqi forces must take a front-line role.

Al-Qaida first started to lose its footholds in the western Anbar province after Sunni tribes turned against them and joined the U.S.-led fight. The military successes then began to pile up in Baghdad and other central regions forcing many insurgents to seek new havens in the north.

"Mosul will continue to be a center of influence for, center of gravity for, al-Qaida," said U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith earlier this week, calling it a hub for both insurgent financing and foreign fighters.

The U.S. military also said Friday that American and Iraqi troops had cleared a roadside bomb-infested route between Baqouba and Khan Bani Saad, a strategic village on the northern outskirts of Baghdad.

Thirty roadside bombs were removed from the road and surrounding areas along with 12 booby-trapped houses, 11 car bombs and six weapons caches, the military said in a statement.

The troops also killed an estimated 41 suspected al-Qaida in Iraq militants, although the military stressed the exact number could not be confirmed because many were killed in aerial bombardments and their bodies were removed before ground forces arrived.

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