Iraq Hunts Al-Qaeda in Its Last Urban Stronghold
Although we haven't written anything about the operation in Mosul which started a week ago, I've been closely following its developments. The reason why I waited is that we had often heard about a new operation, which would then turn out to be just a rumor. Anyway, the operation this time has actually started, and the arrival of Maliki and his defense and interior ministers in the city leaves no room for doubt about the seriousness of the government in seeing to the plan's success.
The interesting thing about the operation is that it's been suspiciously quiet, to the extent that one wonders if there's actually any operation going on. In fact, Mosul has seen the calmest eight days of the last five years.
The operation won broad approval and support even before it started, which -especially among Sunni blocs- is another positive product of the Basra operations. As we can see, the usual sectarian rhetoric about biased targeting of Sunni regions without Shia ones has been absent this time. In addition to the parliamentary approval, the operation won public support represented by the tribes' willingness to take part in the operation. The chief of the awakening councils in the province, Fawaz Jerba, said that there were ten thousand men ready to take part in the operation.
However, the government preferred not to get them involved right now and is moving forward to form seven battalions of police from the residents of the province. These battalions are likely to have an important role in maintaining security and order after the operation ends. Two of these units will be assigned to Tal Afar: one will guard the bridges in the city, another will operate fixed checkpoints on the main highways leading to the city. The rest will be added to the existing security forces in Mosul. All are to be led by former army officers.
Initial results of the operation included the capture of 1,100 suspects and wanted individuals, according to the spokesman of the defense ministry, Mohammed Askari. Most of those are officers in the former army and members of the military bureau of the Ba'ath Party, along with a bunch of al-Qaeda emirs; yet to be named, three of them are described as being among the most dangerous in Mosul.
What's special about the name of the operation - "the Mother of Two Springs" - is that it's the adorable second name of the city which it gained from the relatively nice climate it enjoys. It's a smart replacement for "Lion's Roar," which some found to be needlessly scary, especially since we need a real lion more than we need the roar!
What's unique about this city is its prestigious military history. The Iraqi army had long relied on Maslawis to build its officer corps, which is a source of pride for the city. In the beginning there were rumors in the Sunni community that stemmed from the fear that the operation might turn into an organized act of cleansing against those officers or a twisted implementation of the de-Ba'athification law. However, the defense and interior ministries strongly rejected that allegation and announced that 80 of those detained were released after they were not found guilty of crimes. The Ministry asserted that arrests were based on accurate intelligence. Actually, some in the government are boasting that this is the first operation in which most arrests have been made according to legitimate warrants.
In my opinion, the suspicions of both sides are understandable due to many years of distrust between Mosul and the government. On the one hand, the targeting of former officers and Ba'ath Party members is based on the fact that they made up the bulk of al-Qaeda hosts and supporters in many places in Iraq. On the other hand, there are former officers who don't have blood on their hands but are terrified by the countless stories of Shia militias --particularly the Badr Brigades-- undertaking acts of revenge against officers who fought against Iran in the 1980s.
As in Basra, the government gave an ultimatum for militants to hand in their weapons and offered amnesty to those not involved in crimes involving murder in order to make the operation as bloodless as possible. And indeed reports indicate that scores of militants have already handed in their weapons - an encouraging sign in a turbulent city that hardly ever trusted the government.
Among the results of the operation was the discovery of many weapons caches, which included several thousands of pounds of explosives and hundreds of rockets and artillery/mortar rounds. The amount may sound small given what's expected to be found in a city that is the last urban stronghold of al-Qaeda, but it's still an encouraging start since the operation began only a week ago.
Another important thing that distinguishes this operation from previous ones is the active participation of the infant Iraqi air force through transportation and daily reconnaissance sorties. Iraqi officers say that this is the first time they are able to rely on the Iraqi air force for valuable live imagery of the spread-out city.
Some of the critics of the operation noted that announcing the operation before its launch gave al-Qaeda a chance to leave the city for other places, including neighboring countries, thus enabling them to dodge the strike which might waste the chance to crush them in their last remaining stronghold. I personally disagree with this argument. What matters, after all, is to clean the city of al-Qaeda, preferably without fighting. This illustrates a very important trend that we first saw in the Baghdad operations last year; that al-Qaeda now knows that it cannot afford to confront the security forces anymore. Now, instead of digging in and fighting "glorious battles" in Fallujah or elsewhere, al-Qaeda is more inclined to run away than fight. This is a true sign of al-Qaeda's weakening and of their ultimate defeat.
Last but not least, I was surprised to see the leading opposition newspaper Azzaman, which had always been skeptical of everything the government does, praise the operation. To see a headline on Azzaman that says "Al-Qaeda Is Limping, Its Leaders Flee Mosul" means a lot to anyone familiar with Iraqi affairs.
Mohammed Fadhil is PJM Baghdad editor. His own blog is Iraq the Model.