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Time running out for U.S. troops in Mosul

Mar. 9, 2009 - 06:11PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 9, 2009 - 06:11PM  |  
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MOSUL, Iraq — Grenades lie unattended next to a west Mosul bazaar. Garbage bags throughout the city are searched daily for bombs. At a sprawling sheep market, Iraqi army soldiers are careful not to kick over rocks for fear of setting off hidden explosives.

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MOSUL, Iraq — Grenades lie unattended next to a west Mosul bazaar. Garbage bags throughout the city are searched daily for bombs. At a sprawling sheep market, Iraqi army soldiers are careful not to kick over rocks for fear of setting off hidden explosives.

War has ebbed in most parts of Iraq, but not in Mosul, the third-largest city and al-Qaida's last stronghold in the fragile new democracy. And time is running out on the around-the-clock U.S. military patrols of Mosul. U.S. troops must vacate cities by June 30 under an agreement with the Iraqis, and President Barack Obama is ending all American combat operations after August 2010.

The Iraqi security forces are not sure they'll be ready.

"If you don't have the Americans, this is not going to be good," said an Iraqi army captain who gave his name only as Ahmed to protect his family from insurgents. "I cannot take care of it."

Even so, "some people don't like coalition forces here," Ahmed added as his soldiers joined U.S. troops at the sheep market in west Mosul last week. "Iraqi people will come together, and it will be better."

Whether they will be safe in Mosul is anyone's guess.

In poverty-stricken Mosul, a Sunni-dominated city of about 2 million, the U.S. military has long fought to contain al-Qaida from resurging in the rest of Iraq.

Still, al-Qaida is only one of the military's worries.

On Monday, gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint in the western New Mosul neighborhood, killing two policemen and wounding one civilian.

Explosives are part of the daily cacophony in Mosul; the U.S. Army reported six bombs either found or detonated in the city last Thursday and Friday, one of which wounded an Iraqi soldier. Iraqi security forces themselves pose a threat: three American soldiers have been killed in Mosul since November by gunmen wearing Iraqi army or police uniforms.

The problems in Mosul "can put us off track and cause violence to really re-ignite in a greater way," Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. general in Iraq, told reporters Monday.

But the military's main military focus in Mosul is al-Qaida, where efforts to obliterate the terror group and other Sunni militants have failed over the years.

Only recently have additional troops and intelligence gatherers from both the U.S. and Iraqi governments been sent to the capital city of Ninevah province, about 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, to keep al-Qaida from spreading. About 5,000 U.S. troops and 36,000 Iraqi army and police officers are stationed in Mosul.

It was also only recently that U.S. officials recognized al-Qaida's ability to survive after repeated military assaults, said Lt. Col. Tom Cipolla, a 1st Calvary Division battalion commander stationed at the U.S. Army's Marez base just outside Mosul.

"I'm not sure we really understood the level of the problem here early on," Cipolla said in an interview last week. "And I'm not sure we really understood how embedded al-Qaida was becoming. ... Al-Qaida in Iraq has proved to be a very resourceful enemy, capable of regenerating at a time when we thought it didn't have that capability."

Cipolla took his post three weeks ago after his predecessor, Lt. Col. Gary Derby, was killed Feb. 5 by a suicide bomber. "I think we understand now that it is a fight that doesn't stop. It is part of the environment here that will have to be dealt with for a very long time."

Much of the renewed assault on al-Qaida has focused on finding out where the militants are in Mosul and where they will strike next — a task the U.S. is trying to hand off to Iraqis.

In the New Mosul neighborhood, Iraqi security forces have painted their telephone numbers on walls. Walking the streets and getting to know the community also are part of the Iraqi plan to persuade residents to call with tips about insurgents or other suspicious activity.

Iraqi army Col. Aydan al-Jibouri, Mosul's deputy command, said the number of tips has risen by at least 50 percent over the last 10 months. It's a risk for Sunnis especially, since the majority of Mosul's insurgents likely come from the same tribes.

But since most security forces in the city are from other areas in Iraq, some locals said they feel comfortable talking to officials who can't easily identify them.

"We see the national police help us," said Nabil Ali Fawzi, wearing a black fez and standing on his doorstep last week. "We see any problems in our area, we call the national police."

A few minutes later, gunfire broke out several alleys away, spooking troops and sending residents back inside their homes. The shooters, whether threatening or merely firing celebratory rounds, were never found.

Neither were the attackers who lobbed a pair of rusty Russian-made grenades on top of an Iraqi army observation post in the city's Nablus section a few days earlier. When the grenades didn't explode, the Iraqi soldiers merely threw them back down on the street, where they lay next to a local bazaar for two days until a platoon of U.S. soldiers safely detonated them at the Iraqis' request.

The grenades incident made clear that despite ongoing training and advising by U.S. troops, Iraqi security forces are nowhere near to securing Mosul by themselves. It is not uncommon, for example, for as many as two-thirds of Iraqi soldiers or policemen to be on leave from their jobs and return home at any given time since very few of them are from Mosul.

How long the U.S. will stay in the Mosul fight is unknown — even to U.S. military officials.

By the end of June, U.S. combat troops are supposed to vacate bases inside Mosul and other Iraqi cities. Although they will continue to patrol the streets from camps outside the cities, troops will no longer be living among the civilian population — a tactic that proved effective in reducing violence in Baghdad.

Under a Jan. 1 security agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave the country by the end of 2011 — including the roughly 50,000 who will be left behind after the combat troops withdraw next year. Unless the Iraqis ask for continued help, that date is nonnegotiable, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins said Monday.

"There's no intent, nor will there be any fudging of the agreement," Perkins told reporters at a Baghdad news conference when asked about Mosul's security situation.

Cipolla thinks Iraq will ask U.S. combat forces to stay beyond the deadlines as long as al-Qaida remains a threat in Mosul.

"I have a hard time believing anybody will make a decision to scale back the efforts before it's actually the right time to do so, because everybody understands how dangerous al-Qaida has been in the past," Cipolla said. "Nobody wants to go back to that."

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