With the Mahdi Army subdued in Basrah and a cease-fire under way with the Sadrist movement in Sadr City in Baghdad, the focus of the Iraqi government has shifted to the northern city of Mosul, where al Qaeda maintains its last urban stronghold. On May 10, the Iraqi security forces launched Operation Lion’s Roar in an effort to roll back al Qaeda and allied Sunni insurgent groups.
Al Qaeda in Iraq’s last major ratline into Syria spans westward from Mosul into Tal Afar and the crossing point at Sinjar. The terror group is waging a brutal campaign to prevent the Iraqi Army and US forces from securing the province and to keep their supply lines to Syria open.
The Iraqi security forces started the operation by declaring a curfew in the province and conducting operations to round up wanted terrorists. In the six days since the operation began, Iraqi forces detained 1,068 suspects, according to General Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, the commander of the Ninewa Operational Command.
Of those captured, “just under 200” Tier 1 and Tier 2 al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq operatives have been detained, said Major General Mark Hertling, the commander of Multinational Division North said during a briefing on May 15.
“There have been some very big fishes caught,” Hertling said. Tier 1 operatives are operational leaders. Tier 2 operatives are foreign fighters or weapons facilitators, bomb makers, and cell leaders.
US and Iraqi forces have killed or captured several key al Qaeda leaders in Mosul over the past several months. Fourteen of the top 30 al Qaeda operatives who have been killed or captured in the past three months were al Qaeda leaders in Mosul, including three al Qaeda leaders from Saudi Arabia.
The release of captive terrorists and insurgents has been a problem in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq. US military officers have complained that the Iraqi courts are ill-equipped to deal with captured suspects, as judges are bribed or intimidated to release detainees known to have conducted attacks. Or some judges are corrupt. “The bad judges here make it difficult to keep them in,” Lieutenant Colonel Eric Price, the leader of the 8th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi Army Division’s Military Transition Team told The Long War Journal. Only 57 detainees have been released in Mosul since the operation began.
To counter the problems with the courts, the Ninewa Operational Command has established a special court. “Detainees will go from brigade to division and then to the NOC [Ninewa Operational Command] instead of the Iraqi Police (the usual route),” Price said. “Maybe, that will make the difference here.”
The Iraqi government is also providing an opportunity for members of the insurgency to lay down their weapons. “We have decided to grant clemency to members of armed groups in return for handing over their medium and heavy weapons to the security agencies or tribal chiefs in their areas within a period of 10 days,” said Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The prime minister flew to Mosul on May 14 to personally direct operations in the northern city.
The Sahwa, or Awakening, forces in Ninewa are beginning to mobilize in the province. Fawaz al Jarba, the leader of the Mosul Sahwa Council, said more than 11,000 tribal fighters were prepared to assist the security forces during Lion’s Roar.
The Iraqi government declined the offer of the Awakening forces to operate inside Mosul but welcomed their participation in the rural areas where security forces are thin. The Iraqi and US military have resisted the formation of the Awakening inside Mosul because of the ethnic makeup of the city.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.