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U.S. sees long fight to oust Al Qaeda in Mosul

American soldiers say the battle for the northern Iraqi city is a complicated mix of counterterrorism, economic incentives, and political solutions.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 2008

Barricaded city: In Mosul, the capital of Iraq's Nineveh Province, US soldiers are engaged in a fierce fight with Al Qaeda in Iraq. To stop car bombings, the city center is pedestrian traffic only.

Sam Dagher

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Mosul, Iraq

US and Iraqi troops are now repairing breaches in an earthen berm, a 20-foot high barricade built around this northern city in 2004. It's perhaps the most visible part of a grinding fight for control of the last supposed urban stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

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Baghdad and other parts of Iraq still face sporadic insurgent attacks – as they have in recent days. But in Mosul, the thump of explosions is almost as much a part of the daily soundtrack as cars honking. The city averages 60 to 80 roadside bombs – exploded or found – per week.

US officers here acknowledge that security is the No. 1 priority. But they quickly add that talk of a decisive battle in Mosul is misguided. This, they say, will be a protracted struggle in which US soldiers juggle an array of complicated tasks related to counterterrorism, economics, and politics. "In Mosul, based on what we have done in three months, we are at a turning point ... we need to be here long enough to build basic capacity in the government and basic systems in the [Iraqi] military," says Lt. Col. Bob Molinari.

While the US is spending $7 million to repair the Mosul embankment and add checkpoints along the barrier, it also plans more permanent US-Iraqi security stations, or garrisons, inside some of the city's toughest neighborhoods in addition to the 20 that are already in place.

But as Iraqi military and civilian leaders look on, they say that the security improvements alone will not end the cycle of violence in Mosul. A political solution is needed, they say, to end the struggle for power between ex-Saddam Hussein loyalists and newly powerful Kurds and Shiites. It's a solution, many hope, that will ultimately help drive Al Qaeda in Iraq elements from the city.

Political tinderbox

Nineveh Province is home to nearly 3 million people, half of whom live in the capital, Mosul. At least 60 percent are Sunni Arab with the rest divided among Kurds, Kurdish-speaking Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities. One Sunni Arab politician estimates that nearly 100,000 members of the former Iraqi Army are in Mosul.

This ethnic and religious mix continues to fuel Mosul's volatility and has turned the city into a political tinderbox.

Brig. Gen. Noureddin Tatarkhan, a Kurdish leader of the elite peshmerga unit here, now officially part of the Iraqi Army division stationed in Mosul, says Al Qaeda and its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, continue to find a common cause with former regime elements and other insurgent groups like the Islamic Army by lumping the Americans, Kurds, and those supporting the Shiite-led government together as one enemy. He says this message continues to have an impact on many average citizens.

In a statement posted on its website last week, the Islamic Army – believed to be made up mostly of former regime elements – lamented the recent killings of two of its Mosul-based leaders, identified as Abu Fatima and Abu Ibrahim, at the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq and called on its followers not to be distracted by this and to instead "focus all their energies on hitting the enemy: the Americans and the Shiites and peshmerga forces collaborating with them."