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Sunday, July 6, 2008

WAR ON TERROR:Freedom's heroes liberate Mosul

Al-Qaeda is driven from Mosul bastion after bloody last stand
The murder toll is dropping, the insurgents are on the run. Our correspondent is on the front line as the Iraqi army takes control

By Marie Colvin

...Everyone in our vehicle knew it was a prime target for Al-Qaeda in Iraq, formerly an awesome force that struck fear into the hearts of cities across the west and centre of Iraq but now reduced to a rump in the north in one of the most sweeping victories of America’s war on terror.

The hunt began just after dawn. Iraqi armoured personnel carriers surrounded the turbulent Zanjali district in the northern city of Mosul, blocking off roads as police acting on an urgent tip-off swept in and searched from house to house.

They were looking for an Al-Qaeda bomb – a big one. Their intelligence suggested it could be detonated as early as today.

As the search intensified, I accompanied Colonel Tawfeeq Abdullah on a tense drive through Mosul to check on the operation’s progress.

A gunner loomed out of the open hatch in the roof of our Iraqi army Humvee, swivelling a heavy machinegun and scouring the bullet-pocked streets for enemy.

A soldier in the front passenger seat scanned the roads for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the roadside bombs that have wreaked havoc on Iraqis and American forces.

Only three days earlier a roadside bomb had blown up an Iraqi Humvee, killing a policeman.

Everyone in our vehicle knew it was a prime target for Al-Qaeda in Iraq, formerly an awesome force that struck fear into the hearts of cities across the west and centre of Iraq but now reduced to a rump in the north in one of the most sweeping victories of America’s war on terror.

“We are going to a very bad neighbourhood,” said Abdullah, wiping the sweat from his face. It was 41C outside and far hotter inside the armoured vehicle.

Yet despite Zanjali’s reputation as a hotbed of the insurgency, we were able to climb down from the vehicle and walk safely along a road covered in hard-packed dirt from a spate of recent sandstorms.

Most of the metal grates on the roadside shops had been pulled down and the acrid smell of burning rubbish filled the air. A few sheep grazed in scrubby wasteland between the houses.

As the police continued their search for weapons, insurgents and, above all, explosives, a few shopkeepers and residents stood idly watching.

Ambulances were positioned every few hundred yards along the road in case of fighting. It never materialised. A search of hundreds of houses met no resistance and yielded no bomb, just 60kg of TNT and some bomb-making equipment.

All that the soldiers found otherwise was a solitary Kalashnikov assault rifle.

“We let him keep the gun because every Iraqi family is allowed to have a personal weapon,” said Major Awad al-Juburi, 39, standing in the road in full battle gear. “The families have been okay with us so far. They are not objecting. They offered us tea and water.”

In Mosul, Al-Qaeda’s last redoubt, the group still held sway as recently as Easter. Now it lacks the strength to fight the army face to face and has lost the sympathy of most of the ordinary citizens who once admired its stand against the occupying forces and their allies in the Iraqi army.

Yesterday two off-duty policemen were shot dead in a market in the east of the city. Hit-and-run attacks such as this have replaced more organised resistance as Al-Qaeda’s strength has been sapped.

“Two days ago the insurgents fired two RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] on our post,” Abdullah said. “Yesterday they attacked us with machinegun fire.” To the colonel, these seem small-scale affairs.

Iraqi officials acknowledge that bombs such as the one that had supposedly been made and stored in Zanjali will still claim civilian lives in “spectacular” attacks that are intended to attract publicity, to show that the group is still intact and to inspire supporters.

Brigadier-General Abdullah Abdul, a senior Iraqi commander, said: “Al-Qaeda in Mosul is pretty much not able to do the attacks that they could do previously. They are doing small attacks and trying to do big ones but they are mostly not succeeding.”

The Iraqis and Americans have got Al-Qaeda on the run. How have they come so far, so fast? ON the night of May 9, 87 “target packets” landed on the walnut desk of Abdul, the commander of the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division.

The details of each named target were specific. One read: “Action: capture. Characteristics: white hair, hazel eyes, sunburnt skin. Alias: Abu Mohamed. Car: drives a station wagon. Residence: a two-storey house painted black (with map attached showing location). Credibility of source: reliable.”

By early the next morning – the launch day for Operation Lion’s Roar to recapture Mosul – hundreds of police and army checkpoints had been set up across the city.

Iraqi security forces began conducting raids to round up the targets in the packets on Abdul’s desk. Many of them were detained in the first two days. Two weapons caches were found and cleared.

It quickly became clear that the Iraqi army and the Americans’ 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment were combining their forces effectively. American tanks formed cordons while Iraqi soldiers went from house to house.

An outer cordon was established to ring the city with a huge bank to keep out bombers and the small number of fighters still arriving in Iraq from Syria to reinforce Al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, an inner cordon of security checkpoints was set up within the city, cutting off districts from one another to curtail insurgents’ movements.

The Americans built small forts known as command operating posts in areas where control was established to increase the flow of intelligence and ensure that no ground was ceded. The impact of the operation was instant.

In the week before it began there were 195 acts of violence, including roadside bombings, sniper shootings and mortar and grenade attacks. The following week, when the entire city was placed under a 24-hour curfew, this figure fell to 93.

On May 14, in the Hay al-Tenak district, four IEDs, three pipe bombs and five mortar rounds were discovered in a grave. The successes did not come without cost, however. On the same day, five Iraqi soldiers were killed when an IED blew up under their armoured personnel carrier.

Some of the discoveries revealed the brutality of Al-Qaeda’s reign. On May 19 in the district of Muthana, an alert Iraqi soldier spotted a manhole cover that should not have been there.

Beneath it they found a ceremonial knife in an apparent torture chamber, its walls spattered with blood. Videos recovered from the chamber showed Iraqi soldiers and police being executed.

Next to be unearthed, on May 26, was a bomb factory above a shop in the Hay al-Jazair district. It contained 11 tons of homemade explosive, 1 ton of nitrate, 10 bottles of liquid nitrate, 100kg of ball bearings and 500kg of gunpowder, along with gas masks and gloves.

Al-Qaeda suffered perhaps its greatest blow on June 24 when American soldiers gunned down Abu Khalaf, the “emir of Mosul”. He had been a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most notorious leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed in an airstrike two years ago.

An aide wearing a suicide vest died with the emir, as did a woman who tried to pull the detonator on his vest.

Al-Qaeda was also bleeding support as allied Iraqi insurgents accepted an amnesty. It did not apply to Al-Qaeda. “If you are fighting to install sharia [Islamic law] on this country, you are going to have to be killed,” said Colonel David Brown, an American adviser to 2nd Division. WITH its supply lines disrupted, Al-Qaeda is increasingly turning to extortion and kidnapping, further alienating the population.

In the past week, as the weapons finds slowed to a trickle and the attacks declined to just 13, Americans and Iraqis alike were elated but not complacent. A car bomb that killed 18 people and wounded 80 in Mosul 10 days ago served as a reminder that the enemy has yet to be eliminated.

Nevertheless, the speed of Al-Qaeda’s decline in Iraq – not only in the north but throughout the country – has taken many military strategists and observers by surprise.

In Zarqawi’s day, a ruthless campaign of suicide bombings, abductions and beheadings paralysed the country and thwarted US efforts to pacify it. By the end of 2006 some were predicting an American defeat.

The reversal of fortunes is attributed to the “surge” strategy of General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces, who targeted Al-Qaeda in Iraq above all else after securing an extra 30,000 troops last year.

His officers exploited local resentment of the terrorists and promised to protect those who resisted them. Under Petraeus’s plan, they established awakening councils, or groups calling themselves concerned local citizens. These Sunni groups helped to drive Al-Qaeda from many of its bastions.

US and Iraqi forces were then able to retake large swathes of the country and complete the “clearing” of cities such as Ramadi and Falluja and large areas of Baghdad. The overall number of attacks in Iraq has fallen by 80% in the past year alone.

Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has gone on in recent months to reassert control over Basra in the south and Baghdad’s Sadr City, the two main strongholds of the Shi’ite Mahdi Army.

As for Mosul, the battle has been crucial to both sides and the Americans believe that it could have repercussions for Al-Qaeda beyond Iraq. “Al-Qaeda has its propaganda value from fighting the infidels and this is the central operating theatre for that battle,” said Brown. “If they are pushed out of Iraq that is a huge defeat for them.”

The signs this weekend were positive. Major Erich Campbell, operations officer for the US advisers, said: “Earlier this year we could have gone down the street waving fistfuls of dollars in the air.

“We couldn’t buy anything. Iraqis told us, ‘If we sell to you, we will be killed’. Now we can buy things from shops.”

The last word was left to the beleaguered people of Mosul. Sa’ad Aziz, 47, stood in his shop, with ice-cream in the freezer and fizzy drinks and sweets on the shelves, watching the search for the Zanjali bomb in virtual darkness because there was no electricity.

His concerns were far removed from Al-Qaeda’s jihad: “We have only two hours of electricity out of 10. I need it for my business. There is only a little water in this area. We need jobs. My son has a university degree but he has no work. We’re all very tired of this insurgency.”

Battlefield veteran

Marie Colvin has been a Sunday Times foreign correspondent since 1986 when she witnessed the US bombing of Tripoli. She has covered the Middle East throughout that time and in 1991 remained in Baghdad during the bombing of the first Gulf war.

She has won a string of awards for her reporting from other troublespots, including Chechnya, Zimbabwe and East Timor.

In 1999 she chose to stay on in a besieged United Nations compound in Dili, East Timor, when her male colleagues left. “They don’t make men like they used to,”