After four days of a preparatory operation code-named Za’eer al-Asad (The Lion’s Roar), Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to supervise a new military operation against al-Qaeda in Ninawa (Nineveh) province (al-Jazeera, May 14). Al-Maliki was accompanied by Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir al-Obaidi and a group of Iraqi military commanders. General Abdul Karim Khalaf, the spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, announced that Iraqi forces had started operation Umm al-Rabi’ain (The Mother of Two Springs) to chase al-Qaeda and the extremists affiliated with it out of Mosul. General Khalaf said “a second operation with the name Umm al-Rabi’ain (the nickname of Mosul, known for its long spring season) has started targeting those who committed crimes against Iraqi security forces and civilians in Mosul.”
An operation in Ninawa province and its capital Mosul has been expected for months. Al-Maliki talked about the need for such action in December last year, but more clearly after the killing of more than 30 people when a suspected weapons cache in al-Zanjeeli district in Mosul exploded in January while surrounded by Iraqi and U.S. forces. The next day the head of Mosul’s police was killed in a suicide attack while visiting the bombing site (al-Jazeers, January 24). Al-Maliki said then that his government would restore security in Ninawa province. Interior Ministry spokesman General Khalaf declared: “The orders have been issued for the police and army to consolidate their presence in Mosul for a major mission… Iraqi intelligence has succeeded in infiltrating the networks of al-Qaeda organizations in the area… The plan will be about denying al-Qaeda safe strongholds, using tactics that were applied successfully in al-Anbar province” (CNN, January 27; al-Motomar.net, January 26).
The northern province of Ninawa is 14,410 sq mi and is bordered by Syria, Turkey and the Iraqi autonomous region of Kurdistan. The population is more than 3.5 million, the majority Sunni Arabs with significant Kurdish and Christian minorities and small Yazidi, Shubak and Shiite Turkmen minorities. While the sectarian tension in central Iraq is between the Shiites and the Sunnis, in Mosul it is between the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds. A few days before Operation Lion’s Roar, six Arab members of the Iraqi parliament from Mosul accused Kurdish militias of forcing the people of the areas around the city of Mosul to sign requests to join Kurdistan. Kurdish MPs denied the allegations but suggested that those areas are populated by a vast majority of Kurds (Aswat al-Iraq, May 8).
The Sunnis also criticize the domination of the Kurdish peshmerga militia in Mosul. Iraqi Army Chief of Staff General Babakir Zebari, a Kurd himself, denied that the peshmerga were involved in the Mosul operation but added that the Ninawa-based Kurds in the second and third divisions of the Iraqi army are not militiamen but members of the regular Iraqi army.
The border of Ninawa with Syria is one of the gateways foreign fighters affiliated to al-Qaeda use to enter Iraq—one of the infiltration routes ends in the city of Mosul (see Terrorism Focus, February 27). During the first four years after the U.S. invasion, al-Qaeda concentrated their activities on areas surrounding the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, but there were other Iraqi insurgent groups active in Mosul—about 250 mi north of Baghdad—with its large, educated middle classes and concentration of officers and commanders from the disbanded Ba’athist army and security services. After the Sahwat (Awakening) movement started among the Sunnis and al-Qaeda strongholds fell one by one into the hands of Sahwat fighters backed by U.S. forces, Mosul began to be described as the last urban stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Shaykh Fawaz al-Jarba, one of the leaders of the Shamar tribe—a powerful Sunni tribe spread over western Ninawa—claimed that 10,000 tribal fighters were ready to participate in the operation and claimed that he could recruit 50,000 fighters if the government supported his efforts (al-Sabah, May 9). But the Kurds have always opposed giving any extra power to the Sunni tribes that might result in them becoming an effective challenge to Kurdish power in Ninawa. The Kurdish deputy governor of Ninawa, Khisro Goran, even denied that there was any Sahwat movement in Ninawa.
General Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, the head of Iraqi forces in Ninawa, appears to have launched a new initiative to urge the Sunnis to join government efforts in Mosul. General Tawfiq announced that he had given the authority to recruit 4,000 men from Mosul to consolidate the force in the city after complaints that local citizens were excluded from the security operations (al-Hayat, February 11; al-Sharqiyah TV, May 14). General Tawfiq offered to recruit officers from the former Iraqi army, including ex-members of Saddam’s al-Ba’ath Party (Fatehoon.com, May 2).
The first phase of the operation started on May 11 with raids by Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces, though it was described by Major Peggy Kageleiry, spokesperson for U.S. forces in the north, as an Iraqi-led, -planned and -executed operation. She added that U.S. forces would provide support as requested by the Iraqi operation commander. Mosul residents reported seeing U.S. fighter planes flying over the city (al-Arabiya, May 11). The Iraqi forces did not face any resistance in their raids in Mosul. The spokesman of the Ministry of the Interior said that “there were no clashes during operation ‘Mother of Two Springs’ because the terrorists were hiding [and] avoiding the raids of our troops” (AFP, May 14).
Before returning to Baghdad, al-Maliki issued an amnesty for fighters who handed in their weapons in 10 days to Iraqi forces or pro-government tribal leaders. Those fighters not accused of killing anyone would be eligible for cash rewards. General Tawfiq said that more than 1,000 suspects were arrested and added that “the operation will last till we finish off all terrorist remnants and outlaws” (Reuters, May 17).
In fact, the major leaders of the insurgent groups appear to have left Mosul two months before the operation (Azzaman, May 17; Almalafpress.net, May 16). The repeated early announcements of the operations offered a chance for the insurgents to take precautions and move out of the region. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is known for avoiding major combat confrontations—its tactics rely mainly on fighting with small groups only. It is clear that the Iraqi government could not achieve a decisive victory with two quick military operations against al-Qaeda in Ninawa province.
The Sunni Arab tribes in western and southern Mosul have not yet been organized to help work against al-Qaeda’s infiltration routes, though many of the tribal leaders in those areas are now willing to join the Sahwat movement. Continuing conflicts between the central government, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Sunni tribes offer al-Qaeda space to achieve its goals. So long as Sunni tribesmen and former officers of the old Iraqi army remain unengaged in the security apparatus, al-Qaeda will continue to be able to infiltrate the Iraqi Sunni community in Ninawa province. Unless the Sunni-Kurdish tension in Ninawa is resolved as part of the national reconciliation, the multi-ethnic nature of Mosul’s society will continue to fuel violence and instability in Iraq.