BAGHDAD – Al-Qaida fighters and other Sunni insurgents have largely scattered from the northern city of Mosul in the face of a U.S.-Iraqi sweep, fleeing to desert areas farther south, an Iraqi commander said Sunday. He vowed the forces will not allow them to regroup.
The U.S. military said al-Qaida in Iraq was “off-balance and on the run” but remains a threat, tempering remarks by the U.S. ambassador a day earlier that the terror network was closer than ever to being defeated.
The comments came amid a flurry of attacks in Baghdad and other areas. A roadside bomb targeted a patrol of U.S.-allied Sunni Arab fighters near a mosque in north Baghdad, killing one of the so-called Awakening Council members and wounding three others, a police official said.
Bombings and shootings killed three people in and around Baqouba, north of Baghdad, where U.S. forces waged an offensive last year to break al-Qaida domination of the city, police said. Police officials in both cities spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Iraqi security forces also conducted their first major roundup of weapons caches in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City, where troops and police deployed last week – a move that could raise tensions in the military’s truce with the Mahdi Army militia.
The U.S. and Iraqi military have called Mosul the last remaining urban stronghold for al-Qaida in Iraq after successes against the terror network in Baqouba and major towns in the western province of Anbar.
Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari said security forces had arrested some 1,030 people during their sweep the past week in Mosul. Another 251 detainees had been freed, he said.
He said about 2,000 al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgent fighters were believed to have been in the city before the sweep was launched. He could not say how many remained, but said most who managed to flee were believed to be taking refuge in deserts near Tikrit and Ramadi, farther south.
“Now they are in a confused situation,” he said at a joint news conference with U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll. “We will not allow them to reorganize themselves.”
After past sweeps, Sunni insurgents have regrouped to carry out major attacks and dominate other cities to use as a planning base.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have been taking a more confident tone over security gains in Iraq in recent weeks, particularly since the high profile crackdowns in Mosul and Sadr City, and the southern city of Basra. Those sweeps aim to impose Iraqi government control in areas that have been under the control of Shiite militias or Sunni insurgents.
Driscoll sounded a cautionary note, however. He said that while al-Qaida in Iraq fighters “certainly are off-balance and on the run,” the group “remains a very lethal threat.”
Still, the number of attacks in the past week decreased to a level “not seen since March 2004,” he said, without giving specific figures.