Hertling: Mosul still a key site for insurgents
TIKRIT, Iraq — While coalition forces continue to make progress in Ninevah province, the violence is picking back up after slowing down in May, military officials say.
Lt. Col. Robert Molinari, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment operations officer, said Wednesday’s car bomb attack in a Tal Afar market that killed 20 people fits the established pattern of one sectarian "flare-up" in the city every three or four weeks. Many of these attacks occur when al-Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni organization, targets Shiite Turcoman residents.
"The real story is, (Wednesday’s attack) is nothing out of the norm,""Molinari said.
Neighboring Mosul, one of the last al-Qaida strongholds, has been more active. Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of the 1st Armored Division, the unit in charge of northern Iraq, said the larger city is actually the insurgents’ main focus.
Hertling said attacks across Ninevah are part of the insurgents struggle to reverse their setbacks.
"[Wednesday’s attack] is not a hiccup," he said. "Al-Qaida is desperately trying to hold on to Mosul, and Tal Afar is a way to do that."
Mosul saw heavy fighting at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008. The 3rd ACR each week saw 100 to 120 "significant acts," a catch-all term for encounters with insurgents or insurgent weapons.
But significant acts plummeted after an Iraqi operation called Lion’s Roar started May 10, dropping into the teens in some weeks. The numbers have since climbed back to 50 or 60 per week. Mosul fighters are also sticking to a consistent pattern — in this case, one attack every four or five days, Molinari said.
The types of attacks have changed with the growing successes, Molinari said. Insurgents don’t have the freedom of movement they once did to lay roadside bombs, shoot directly at soldiers or fire mortars and rockets. Instead they are relying almost exclusively on car bombs and intimidation murders. These dramatic, high-visibility attacks let people know they’re still out there, but they also alienate the populace, the military believes.
"He’s got to go after the intimidation. That’s all he’s got left," Molinari said.
In Tal Afar, troops encounter almost no small-arms attacks and or roadside bombs, he said.
Molinari said signs are looking good across the area. As of Thursday, the regiment had completed four days of voter registration without incident, Molinari said. No registration location has been attacked, and no one is known to have been intimidated for registering to vote.
"It’s largely the Iraqis making it happen," he said.
The province will also be getting some extra people to help fight the insurgents. The area has about 24,000 security forces now, but leaders recently authorized three new Iraqi army battalions and Mosul’s first-ever Iraqi National Police battalion.
And unlike during the area’s worst days, Molinari said people are continuing about their business after the attacks.
"When the dust settles, the shops are still open, the people are still walking around," he said.
But Hertling said he expects Ninevah to remain a key battleground. The area has numerous tribes and it is a part of the Arab-Kurd dispute. It also has direct access to Syria, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government and wide expanses of desert that Hertling compares to the difficulties of policing U.S.-Mexican border.
"You never know what’s coming across and where," he said. "That’s going to be our continuing toughest fight, I think, just because of its geographic location."