BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi forces have detained more than 1,000 suspects in an offensive aimed at crushing al Qaeda in northern Iraq, the military commander of the operation said on Saturday.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki returned to Baghdad on Saturday after spending several days in the city of Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province to supervise the crackdown.
Many gunmen from Sunni Islamist al Qaeda have regrouped in Nineveh after being pushed out of other areas. The U.S. military says Mosul is al Qaeda’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
Lieutenant-General Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, head of the Iraqi-led offensive that began a week ago, said 1,068 suspects had been detained so far. “This operation will last until we finish off all the terrorist remnants and outlaws,” he said.
On Friday, Maliki said fighters who handed in their weapons within 10 days would be given an amnesty and unspecified cash rewards. His offer applies to gunmen who have not killed anyone.
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.
An influx of additional U.S. troops last year and a decision by Sunni Arab tribes to turn against al Qaeda has enabled U.S. and Iraqi forces to push the militants out of Baghdad and the western province of Anbar, their former strongholds.
The Iraqi military wants to repeat that success in Mosul.
Police and soldiers have raided some towns on the Syrian border, where many foreign al Qaeda fighters enter Iraq, as part of the operation and turned over some suspects to U.S. forces.
In late March, Maliki took control of a military operation against Shi’ite militias in the southern oil city of Basra. The operation started badly, as the Mehdi Army of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr put up fierce resistance.
Iraqi troops, backed by the U.S. military, gradually took control of Basra but fighting spread to Baghdad, drawing security forces into daily gun battles with militiamen claiming allegiance to Sadr.
A week-old truce deal between Sadr’s parliamentary bloc and the ruling Shi’ite alliance has helped ease fighting, especially in capital’s Shi’ite slum of Sadr City, a Mehdi Army bastion.
Residents said Sadr City was quiet on Saturday. Police said they were able to gain access to parts of the slum to start clearing streets of roadside bombs.
The renewed fighting with the Mehdi Army thrust the Iraq war back to the centre of the U.S. presidential election campaign.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a key Democrat critic of President George W. Bush’s war policy, landed in Baghdad on Saturday for talks with U.S. and Iraqi officials, the U.S. embassy said.