Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 January - 6 February 2008
Issue No. 882
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mosul in the crosshairs

While Iraqi troops stand poised for an onslaught on Al-Qaeda, it is a political deal that will set the course for Iraq's future, writes Salah Hemeid

Thousands of Iraqi army soldiers reached the northern city of Mosul on Sunday in preparation for what the government said would be a major offensive there against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, along with other Sunni militants. The dispatch included Iraqi army Special Forces, mechanised troops, tanks and aircraft, in the biggest campaign so far mounted by the newly formed army.

Major-General Mohamed Al-Askari, official spokesman of the Defence Ministry, said preliminary reinforcements began arriving in Mosul from Baghdad late Sunday, with more expected in the coming days. "Their task is to wipe out the presence of Al-Qaeda in Mosul," Al-Askari told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview.

Al-Askari said the operation in Mosul would be similar to ones conducted in Baghdad and Diyala, where the Iraqi army, backed by US troops, went door-to- door to drive Al-Qaeda linked militants from the city and its environs. He said the operation would include the desert close to the border with Syria, which remains a sanctuary for the group's operatives. Al-Askari did not say how many troops would participate in the offensive, but other officials said some 3,000 troops -- mostly from the Iraqi Army's 9th Division -- would be deployed in the city in addition to 3,000 Interior Ministry policemen.

The campaign comes but a few days after at least 60 people were killed in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city with 1.7 million residents, when Al-Qaeda militants blew up a building and a suicide bomber killed the province's police chief. The violence prompted Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to pledge to take back Mosul, which is seen as a stronghold for Al-Qaeda in Iraq after militants fled north under pressure from US-led forces in Baghdad and in Anbar province.

Al-Maliki sent Defence Minister Abdul-Qadir Al-Obeidi to Mosul Sunday to talk to local commanders and work out a strategy to defeat Al-Qaeda. "The security situation is much worse than we expected," Al-Obeidi told the press Sunday. "The decisive battle with Al-Qaeda will be launched very soon," he said. Governor of Mosul Doraid Kashmola said he urged the central government to intervene after security further deteriorated. "The situation is so bad that appropriate measures should be taken to stop the flow of militants from Syria," he said. Director of operations at the Defence Ministry, Major-General Abdul-Aziz Jassim Mohamed, said that Al-Qaeda "has been playing havoc in the province".

For its part, Al-Qaeda refuses to give up. On Monday, five US soldiers were killed in an attack in Mosul, ascribed to Al-Qaeda's, as Iraqi troops assembled for their offensive. The soldiers came under small arms fire and were hit by a roadside bomb in a suburb of Mosul believed to be an Al-Qaeda stronghold.

In 2007, US and Iraqi forces mounted major campaigns to take back areas under the control of "Sunni Arab militants", benefiting from the near 30,000 additional US troops that arrived in Iraq during the first half of the year. Mainstream reports say that "Al-Qaeda-linked" militants have lost the upper hand in Baghdad, with many making alliances with US forces. In Mosul, militants remain active mostly because they have maintained an open corridor through neighbouring Syria.

Al-Askari said US troops will take part in the Mosul operation, but US commanders have not explained how US forces will participate in the offensive. US military officials said that US military operations around Mosul were continuing. The US military has some 3,000 troops in the capital of Nineveh province. "As it stands... we are executing day-to-day operations in support of Operation Phantom Phoenix," said Major Gary Dangerfield, spokesman for the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment in Mosul, referring to a nationwide offensive launched this month.

US military commanders say Al-Qaeda, blamed for most serious bombings in Iraq, is believed to have regrouped in Iraq's northern provinces after being squeezed out of the western province of Anbar and from around Baghdad during security crackdowns last year. Under "the surge" security plan forged by US commander General David Petraeus, an alliance of US troops and local tribes -- known as Awakening Councils -- has been effective in moving against Al-Qaeda fighters in most Sunni provinces.

Yet for the Americans there might be bad news from Mosul to come. The city was not part of the security plan devised by Petraeus and there are no Awakening Councils there. Therefore it is not clear how the Iraqi army -- mostly Shia and Kurdish dominated -- will operate in the Sunni province without support and cooperation from the local population.

Also Mosul is already rife with tension between Arabs and Kurds, with most of the people fearing that Kurds will benefit from the crackdown and eventually impose their will over parts of the province. Some Mosulis fear that the government will support a Kurdish-backed "voluntary" relocation of Sunni Arabs from disputed areas, similar to one implemented in Kirkuk.

These fears were prompted by an agreement signed earlier this month by Tariq Al-Hashimi, leader of the Islamic Party in Iraq and vice-president, and Kurdish leaders, under which Hashimi agreed to implement contentious Article 140 of the constitution that calls for demarcation of disputed areas. Kurds claim that some parts of the Nineveh province were taken from them during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Like in other Sunni provinces, there is a growing sense among Mosulis that Al-Maliki's government -- and Shia factions in general -- have little interest in making concessions to Sunnis regarding their share in power and wealth. In recent months, the Maliki government has sent several clear signs of anti-Sunni intransigence. For example, Al-Maliki has been reluctant to enrol Awakening Council fighters into the Iraqi police force.

While his government and the Shia- Kurdish dominated parliament have passed reformed de-Baathification laws, there are still other "benchmarks" to meet in order to co-opt Sunnis into the US-supported political process. One of these is passing a law guaranteeing fair distribution of oil profits -- necessary for any political solution to Iraq's present tensions.

Whatever the outcome of the offensive in Mosul, the heart of the issue is how, and under what conditions, Iraqis will be able to solve their own problems. Without a political deal, conflict will intensify.

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