The police chief of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh was killed by a suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform Thursday in the provincial capital of Mosul, according to the US military. He had arrived to survey the scene of a major bomb attack that had devastated an entire neighborhood the day before.
Brig. Gen. Saleh Muhammad Hassan al-Jubouri is the second Iraqi provincial police chief to be killed in less than two months and his death underscores the fragility of the security situation in northern Iraq which has seen numerous attacks in recent weeks. Al Qaeda-linked insurgents have fled to this area from Baghdad and Anbar Province to the south and are targeting new citizen militias, US officials say.
General Jubouri had only been the provincial police chief for two months, the province's deputy governor Khasro Goran told the Monitor in a telephone interview from Mosul.
The US military said in a statement Thursday that two Iraqi policemen were killed and a US and Iraqi soldier were wounded in the attack against Jubouri, who was a native of the province. He hailed from a major predominantly Sunni Arab tribe, whose members have in recent months joined US-funded militia groups dubbed Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs) in the fight against Al Qaeda-linked militants.
The Wednesday attack in Mosul, while not unexpected, was on a tragic scale. At least 34 people were killed and 224 wounded when a three-floor building was blown up in the neighborhood of Al-Zanjili, a notorious insurgent stronghold on Mosul's west side.
Mr. Goran, the deputy governor, says the explosion occurred when the Iraqi Army arrived at the scene after receiving a tip that the abandoned building was being used by insurgents to store weapons and arms.
He says the powerful explosion brought down dozens of old homes in Zanjili. Many people were trapped under the rubble for hours. Fresh television footage of the bomb scene broadcast on Thursday showed a massive crater surrounded by heaps of debris from destroyed homes.
"We asked the central government to declare it a disaster zone," says Goran.
The commander of US forces in Northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling told the Monitor in a telephone interview that US military experts who examined the scene Thursday concluded that nearly 25 tons (50,000 pounds) of explosive material was used in making it one of the largest bombings in Iraq since the start of the war.
General Hertling said that this "spectacular attack" may be the work of new Al Qaeda leaders in Mosul trying to establish themselves after the capture or killing of their predecessors.
Goran blames the worsening security situation in Mosul on militants fleeing from other provinces like Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala where major anti-insurgency operations took place over the past year and also a reduction in the number of Iraqi Army and US forces, who left Mosul to take part in those same operations. He says the interior ministry has been "very slow" in building up the police force in Nineveh and Mosul.
The province, which has a population of about three million, has a police force of 20,000 on the books, but the actual number of those patrolling the streets is much lower. He says Mosul, where half the population resides, has only 3,000 policemen.
He says one desperate measure the provincial council is considering seriously is to dig a trench around the city of Mosul and allow entry only through a few designated checkpoints to restrict the movements of militants and insurgents.
"The city must be cleansed like Baghdad and Anbar. There are pockets of terror festering here since 2004," says Goran.
But Hertling said that the forces that were taken out of Mosul have been moving back into the area since the end of December. Last week, the Iraqi government appointed a new Iraqi commander to be based in Mosul. He will coordinate the activities of the Iraqi Army, police, and border guards in the province, he said, hinting that major offensives against militants in Mosul may be launched shortly.
Goran cautions that replicating the CLC or the tribal awakening experience in Mosul will not work because of the province's fragile ethnic and sectarian mix which includes Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and other groups like the Yazidis and Shabak.
The Dubai-based analyst Mr. Ani agrees, and says that this mix coupled with proximity to the Syrian border, through which foreign fighters and weapons stream, and heightened tensions between Kurds and Arabs, all combine to make Mosul an ideal base for insurgents linked to Al Qaeda.
Ani says the Kurds claim nearly 15 percent of the land of Nineveh Province and want it, along with the neighboring oil rich city of Kirkuk to the east, to be part of the Kurdistan region. This issue has unified the Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, concentrated in western and southern Nineveh, against the Kurds.
"The radicalization is happening very fast in Mosul," says Ani. "If the Americans do not pressure the Kurds to tone down their demands," he sees some groups in Mosul lining up with the Islamists fighting both the Americans and the Kurds. He says that only a political solution will work.
In addition to becoming a haven for Islamic radicals, Mosul has long had strong pan-Arab sentiments and was home to the highest number of Army officers during the rule of Saddam Hussein, he notes.
On Tuesday, Hertling said that troops have conducted nearly 40 operations in all of Iraq's northern provinces since the end of December. Those operations have resulted in the killing of 130 militants and the capture of another 370.
General Hertling nonetheless highlighted the problem that US forces have long faced against insurgents in Iraq.
"Whenever you feel comfortable that you've eliminated them in one area, they tend to re-emerge," Hertling said. "We'll never say that we've completed pursuing them because they may always come back."
Indeed, Mosul and Nineveh have a history of insurgent attacks. After a period of relative calm following the US-led invasion, Mosul became a major flashpoint and an Al Qaeda stronghold in the fall of 2004 right around the time of the US-led offensive against insurgents in Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad.
In November 2004, militants forced the entire police force of Mosul to quit in a series of bold and coordinated attacks. The US responded by establishing bases and outposts inside the city, just like those set up in Baghdad and Anbar's capital, Ramadi, during the past year, to eject the militants.