Nearly 1,000 people have been detained in a sweep to break al-Qaeda in Iraq’s sway in Iraq’s third largest city, Mosul, but many of the fighters have fled to nearby areas, where troops are hunting for them, Iraqi officials said.
Iraq’s leaders presented the crackdown as a success so far in depriving the terror network of what has been its most prominent urban stronghold since it lost hold of cities in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
But the flight of al-Qaeda fighters raises the concern they can regroup elsewhere, as has often happened in the past.
Yassin Majid, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said on Satruday that most of the leading insurgents had fled to the outskirts of Mosul or to a neighboring country amid the operations.
He did not name the neighboring country. Mosul is about 96km from the Syrian and Turkish borders.
“Operations will continue and the Iraqi army will not leave Mosul until security and stability have been accomplished,” he said in a telephone interview.
Major General Mark Hertling, the top US commander in northern Iraq, whose forces are working with the Iraqi troops in the operation, said he did not believe significant numbers of militants had escaped. He said Iraqi forces have surrounded the city with a circle of berms and checkpoints controlling entry and exits.
But he said some al-Qaeda leaders, who directed their Mosul followers from outside the city, may have stayed away from Mosul ahead of the sweep to avoid arrest, he said.
“It’s been very successful,” he said. “I think the combination of the arrests plus the uncovering of a number of weapons caches will reduce the number of attacks in Mosul.”
But he warned insurgents could try to strike back in the coming days with suicide bombings in the city.
The sweep was launched on Thursday, after five days of preparatory operations and arrests in the city. US-backed Iraqi police and soldiers have been conducting raids on homes and have fanned out with checkpoints on city streets, though no clashes have been reported in the city, 360km northwest of Baghdad.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said 1,068 people have been detained over the past week, but 94 were cleared and have since been released. Hertling said those detained included several high and mid-level al-Qaeda figures, including leaders of cells that organized suicide car bombings and facilitators for foreign fighters entering the country.
The assault on the al-Qaeda in Iraq group was launched in the wake of two other major crackdowns against Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra and the Baghdad district of Sadr City in the past two months. Those two sweeps continue but uneasy truces with the powerful Shiite Mehdi Army militia have eased the heavy violence they sparked.
Al-Maliki said on Saturday the series of crackdowns would bring a boost to reconciliation efforts, saying it has “reflected positively on the political process.”
Al-Bolani told a gathering of some 300 former Saddam Hussein-era officers in Mosul that the army and police would make room for them and that al-Maliki was urging them to return. Many in the crowd cheered the announcement.
Mosul’s Sunni Arab population was once a major source of officers for Saddam’s army, many of whom were removed because of their ties to his regime in a purge that followed the 2003 US invasion. Their bitterness is believed to have fueled the Sunni-led insurgency.