BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces have begun a “decisive” final offensive against al Qaeda in Iraq to push the Sunni Islamist militants out of their last major stronghold in the north, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Friday.
He said Iraqi soldiers were being sent to Mosul, where a massive blast blamed on al Qaeda killed 40 people and wounded 220 on Wednesday, and an operations room had been set up in the city, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad.
U.S. military commanders say al Qaeda, blamed for most big bombings in Iraq, has regrouped in the northern provinces after being squeezed out of western Anbar province and from around Baghdad during security crackdowns last year. They describe Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, as al Qaeda’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
“We have set up an operations room in Nineveh to complete the final battle with al Qaeda along with guerrillas and members of the previous regime,” Maliki said, referring to other Sunni militants the government says remain loyal to former leader Saddam Hussein. “Today our forces started moving to Mosul. What we are planning in Nineveh will be decisive,” he said during a ceremony for victims of violence in the holy Shi’ite southern city of Kerbala, broadcast on state television.
Maliki gave no indication of the number of Iraqi troops involved or the potential scale of the operation.
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. “We defeated al Qaeda, now there is just Nineveh province where they escaped to, and Kirkuk,” Maliki said, referring to another northern city.
U.S. military commanders say al Qaeda’s influence in its former strongholds has been greatly diminished but that it remains a dangerous enemy in Mosul and other northern areas.
Despite frequent attacks in northern Iraq, overall violence has fallen sharply across the country, with the number of attacks down 60 percent since last June.
The fall in attacks has been credited to an extra 30,000 U.S. troops that became fully deployed last June, the growth of neighbourhood police units after Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs turned against al Qaeda and better Iraqi security forces. “Now we have a real army. The days when the militants could do anything in front of our armed forces are gone,” Maliki said.
U.S. commanders in northern Iraq said Wednesday’s massive blast was in an unoccupied building used to store weapons and tonnes of explosives.
The blast left a crater the size of a multi-storey building. On Thursday, the Nineveh province police director and two others were killed by a suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform as they toured the site of the original blast.