BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi troop reinforcements will arrive in the northern city of Mosul on Sunday while tanks and helicopters are being sent for a big operation against al Qaeda militants, security officials said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on Friday that Iraqi security forces were preparing for a final offensive against al Qaeda in Iraq to push the Sunni Islamist militants out of their last major urban stronghold.
U.S. military commanders say al Qaeda, blamed for most serious bombings in Iraq, has regrouped in northern provinces after being squeezed out of the western province of Anbar and from around Baghdad during security crackdowns last year.
Major-General Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, commander of military operations in Nineveh province, said additional Iraqi troops would arrive within hours from Baghdad, with more expected in the days after that. He gave no details of numbers.
The U.S. military does not have a large presence in Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, and concentrates its northern operations on trouble spots such as Diyala province.
It was unclear what role U.S. forces would play in the offensive, which publicly appeared to be an Iraqi-led operation.
Maliki made the announcement after a blast blamed on al Qaeda killed 40 people and wounded 220 in Mosul on Wednesday. The explosion was in an unoccupied building that officials said was used by al Qaeda to store weapons and explosives.
Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters were being sent to Iraq’s third largest city, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, for an offensive that he said would begin “very soon.”
“We will provide everything that is needed for a major operation,” he said.
Askari said Defense Minister General Abdel Qader Jassim had visited Mosul to meet military commanders. On Friday, Askari said security was weak in Mosul and needed to be beefed up.
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf said the Mosul push would include 3,000 extra police.
U.S. and Iraqi troops have launched a series of offensives in northern provinces this year targeting al Qaeda in Iraq.
The U.S. military calls the group, which commanders say is largely foreign-led, the biggest threat to Iraq’s security. The military said last week that al Qaeda militants killed 3,870 civilians and wounded almost 18,000 in 4,500 attacks last year.
Despite frequent violence in northern Iraq, overall attacks have fallen sharply across the country, with the number of attacks down 60 percent since last June.
That has been attributed to an extra 30,000 U.S. troops sent to Iraq last year, the growth of mainly Sunni Arab neighborhood security units and a ceasefire by the feared Mehdi Army militia of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.