The day after five US soldiers were killed in Mosul in a combined roadside bomb-small arms attack, the top US commanders in northern Iraq predicted Tuesday, Jan. 29, that the battle to oust al Qaeda from its last urban stronghold in Iraq will be “a grinding campaign” that will require more firepower from both the Pentagon and Iraqi allies.
“It is not going to be this climactic battle,” said Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of US forces in northern Iraq. “It’s going probably to be a slow process.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources in Iraq disclose that as Gen. Hertling spoke, the extra firepower was already en route.
Monday night, the US Air Force began an airlift of fresh troops, combat equipment and ordnance to Mosul airfield. The airlift is still in progress in support of the largest US-Iraqi operation ever undertaken.
The objective of Operation Python Phantom is to crush al Qaeda forces entrenched in the Nineveh province of northern Iraq. More than 5,000 US troops of the 3rd Armored Cavalry plus additional units and 18,000 Iraqi men of the 3rd Division based on Kurdish fighters are taking part.
Their first action was to close the roads leading to Syria in order to cut off al Qaeda’s line of retreat and reinforcements. Also shut down, according to our military sources, were the routes from Mosul to the main Kurdistani towns of Irbil, Kirkuk and Suleimaniya.
The US commanders took this step in the interests of sensitive internecine politics.
Avoiding treading on sectarian toes
The Turkemani, Syrian, Sunni Muslim and Assyrian communities of the mixed town of 1.8 million inhabitants needed guarantees that the Kurdish fighters would not take advantage of their participation in the battle to pacify Mosul, in order to seize control of the city rather than crush al Qaeda. They took into account that an attempt by Kurdish troops to overrun the non-Kurdish quarters East Mosul would turn the locals against the operation and motivate them to help al Qaeda with hideouts and supplies.
A key tactic adopted by Operation Python Phantom commanders is to try and push al Qaeda out of urban Mosul and outlying towns across into open ground, where the terrorists are at a disadvantage against superior American strength backed by air force and armored might.
The security situation in the capital of Nineveh took a sharp turn for the worse on Jan. 23, when a terrorists’ munitions dump blew up in a building in West Mosul’s Zanjili suburb, leaving a massive crater and damaging some 100 houses.
At least 35 people were officially reported killed and 217 injured, although the Red Crescent put the toll much higher.
“Many families buried their kin immediately after the attack,” said the emergency medical agency, which estimated the number of dead at 60, most of them children, women and elderly. Another 380 were wounded – some of them unlikely to live – and bodies are still buried under the rubble.
The next day, the provincial police chief Brig. Gen. Salah al-Juburi and two other officers were killed by a suicide bomber while inspecting the disaster zone.
Monday, Jan. 28, five US soldiers were killed in Mosul.
Al Qaeda remnants simmer after defeat
Tuesday, Jan. 29, the Iraqi defense minister Abdel Qader Jassim Mohammed admitted after touring the city that the situation in Mosul was “worse than imagined by far.”
Speaking to reporters, he criticized the Iraqi military. “The forces are scattered. They are distributed in Mosul in a way that means they haven’t studied the area. The 2nd Brigade works in the day and withdraws at night leaving the insurgents free to move around. There are many negative things that we must address.”
The minister said that security in Nineveh province is generally good but in the provincial capital it is bad.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the toughest problem facing the US military command in Iraq as a whole is that, even in the regions where terrorist-insurgent activity has been reduced to a minimum – like in Baghdad and the provinces of Anbar, Diyala and Salahadin – remnants remain of an active al Qaeda terrorist infrastructure, which raises its head in secret, regroups, rearms and reverts to suicide operations. Of late, many of these operations have been carried out by women suicides. They primarily target members of the Awakening Councils, the Sunni watch committees working with the American forces.
Therefore, none of the officers serving in the US or Iraqi commands of the big operation in Mosul, can swear that every last vestige of al Qaeda’s presence can be rooted out of the province.
“This is going to be a long, protracted push by coalition forces and more importantly by Iraqi security forces to re-establish security,” Lieut. Col. l Michael Simmering, of the 3rd Armored Cavalry, stationed near Mosul, said. “If you're looking for one big culminating event, you'll never quite see it. I call this the 'campaign for Mosul.'”
Al Qaeda means to continue to operate in different parts of Iraq, albeit on a low fire, which they can re-ignite.