BAGHDAD (AP) – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrived in the northern city of Mosul on Wednesday to supervise a military offensive against al-Qaeda in Iraq called Lion’s Roar, regional Gov. Duraid Kashmola said.
Maliki’s flight to northern Iraq mirrors a similar trip he took almost two months ago to the southern city of Basra, where government troops fought radical Shiite militias. That fighting spread to the Shiite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad, where a cease-fire to end those clashes was only reached on Monday.
Operation Lion’s Roar is the latest effort by Iraqi and U.S. troops to clear al-Qaeda fighters from Mosul, the nation’s third largest city. Troops began sweeping though the city’s neighborhoods last week.
Mosul is considered the last important urban staging ground for al-Qaeda in Iraq after losing its strongholds in Baghdad and other areas during the U.S. troop “surge” last year. American troops will support Iraqi forces when requested, the U.S. military has said.
Al-Maliki has been promising a crackdown since last January. But no major offensives have been mounted even as al-Qaeda in Iraq tried to exert its influence through attacks and intimidation.
A senior U.S. commander said Wednesday that al-Qaeda persists in western Iraq and that a recent increase in attacks shows that the group remains a threat. A group of al-Qaeda fighters recently infiltrated the area, went to the homes of 11 Iraqi police officers and beheaded them and one of their sons.
Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the commander of U.S. forces in Anbar province, said it appeared the insurgents crossed from the Syrian border, talked their way through a checkpoint and then went around the town grabbing police individually.
“Al-Qaeda is not defeated. It’s an ideology,” he said. “Al-Qaeda is still operational but in a smaller scale.” In western Baghdad, a car bomb detonated next to a convoy carrying a lawmaker from the mostly-Sunni Islamic Party, Ayad al-Samarrie, but he was not hurt, police said. One civilian was killed and 20 others wounded, including four guards, they said.
Sadr City was largely quiet on Wednesday as Shiite fighters appeared to respect a cease-fire agreement, though some skirmishes were reported before dawn. That fighting left five dead and 22 wounded, according to hospital officials.
The deal allows Iraqi forces to take over security in the militia stronghold of Sadr City on Wednesday. Under the compromise, Iraqi forces will try to refrain from seeking American help to restore order.
U.S. military officials on Sunday said they would follow the Iraqis’ lead. The Sadrists rejected calls by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to surrender weapons, saying Mahdi fighters have no “medium or heavy weapons.”
A U.S. soldier was killed Tuesday when a roadside bomb exploded next to his vehicle in northwest Baghdad. The U.S. military said the attack took place just before dark on Tuesday. Officials were withholding the soldier’s name and unit until the family could be notified.