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.
……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.
……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.
……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.
……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 (U.S. Army’s) 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.
……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.
……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.
The success of the combat operations by U.S. Army and Iraqi forces, along with General Petraeus’ leadership, and the anger of the Iraqi people with Al Qaeda atrocities, has culminated in the defeat of terrorists in Iraq.
Most of the world’s mainstream media remains conspicuously silent….and disappointed.