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Mosul to be "cleansed" of al Qaeda: Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq said on Wednesday it was determined to “cleanse” its northern city of Mosul of al Qaeda fighters but its U.S. backers said a planned operation might not deal the decisive blow that Baghdad wanted.

Policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, January 27, 2008. REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz

Al Qaeda, the Sunni Islamist militants blamed for most large-scale attacks in Iraq, and other insurgents regrouped in the north after being squeezed out of their former strongholds in western Anbar province and from around Baghdad last year.

Tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are taking part in operations in Iraq’s northern provinces, part of a wider offensive that was launched early this month.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called the Mosul mission a “decisive” final push against al Qaeda but Major-General Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. troops in northern Iraq, cautioned on Tuesday against describing the joint operation in such terms.

Asked if there was disagreement between the allies, Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Mohammed al-Askari softened the language used by Maliki.

“The goal is not only to cleanse the city but the goal after the cleansing is how to maintain all its districts and streets as secured areas clean for all citizens,” he told reporters.

“The goal is not to achieve success only but ... to keep this success.”

Attacks across Iraq have fallen 60 percent since last June, when 30,000 extra U.S. troops became fully deployed, but northern Iraq remains the biggest security headache.

Several deadly attacks have hit Mosul in the past week. Five U.S. soldiers were killed in the eastern side of the city on Monday by a roadside bomb in a coordinated ambush.

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Ansar al-Islam, an insurgent group linked to al Qaeda, issued a statement on Wednesday claiming responsibility for that attack. “We give them a lesson they won’t ever forget,” it said.

The push in Mosul was announced after a huge blast last week in a building the U.S. military said had been used by al Qaeda to store weapons and explosives killed up to 50 people.

Hertling told Reuters on Tuesday that warnings of a “final” push against al Qaeda might cause them to regroup elsewhere. U.S. military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner said there was no intention to play down the Mosul mission’s importance.

DECISIVENESS OF LEADERSHIP

“The decisiveness of this operation is something that will become more clear over time,” he told a news conference with Askari on Wednesday. The “decisiveness” of the Iraqi leadership to take on al Qaeda in Mosul was what mattered most, he said.

“We share the significance of how it’s been described. This is an important fight and one we are all going to have to collectively commit to, and we are.”

In other operations, the U.S. military said it had killed four suspected militants and detained 18 others in raids against al Qaeda networks in the central Iraqi province of Diyala.

Ethnically and religiously mixed Diyala had been the major security worry for U.S. and Iraqi forces in recent months until attacks began to increase in and around Mosul.

Askari described recent operations in Diyala as “around 70 percent” successful, with 57 militants killed and 87 detained.

In other violence, a cameraman for a Shi’ite satellite television channel became the first journalist to be killed this year in Iraq, which media watchdog groups say is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists.

The al-Furat channel, run by the powerful Shi’ite party the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, said Aala Abdul-Kareem, 29, and his driver died in a roadside bomb attack near Balad, 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad. Two of his colleagues were wounded.

Last year, 65 journalists and media assistants were killed in Iraq, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami in Baghdad; Editing by

Robert Woodward)

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