By Joshua Partlow and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 -- An American military convoy came under a barrage of gunfire in the northern city of Mosul on Monday and then was hit by a roadside bomb that killed five U.S. soldiers. It was a particularly bloody day for the U.S. military in a city that has become a gathering point for the Sunni insurgency, and where Iraq's prime minister vowed to have the "final" battle with the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The joint patrol of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers was attacked at about 12:40 p.m. in the Somer neighborhood of southeastern Mosul, when insurgents began shooting at the convoy from a mosque. Amid the gunfire, a roadside bomb exploded, killing the five soldiers, said Maj. Gary Dangerfield, a U.S. military spokesman in Mosul.
As black smoke rose from a damaged vehicle, a fierce gun battle ensued. American soldiers cordoned off the neighborhood and helicopters circled overhead, according to witnesses. The U.S. military said that by the time Iraqi soldiers searched the mosque, the gunmen had fled.
"This event was a tragic loss," Dangerfield said. "But we will continue to pursue and hunt" for insurgents, he added, "by either capturing or killing them."
The attack raised the U.S. military's reported death toll for January to 36, an increase over the 23 troops killed in December, which was one of the lowest monthly fatality totals of the war. The military said it had detained 18 suspected insurgents in the area by the end of the day.
"When you attack the enemy more, the violence increases, so you have higher casualty rates," said Maj. Peggy Kageleiry, a military spokeswoman for northern Iraq. "That's what we're doing, we're pushing al-Qaeda and they're fighting us."
The city of Mosul, about 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, has become a source of growing concern for U.S. and Iraqi officials in recent weeks because they believe insurgents are massing there after fleeing more heavily patrolled areas such as Baghdad and Anbar provinces. The insurgents have set up base camps and stockpiled weapons in the surrounding countryside and desert, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the top U.S. military commander in the region, said in an interview.
The fighters recently have shown their ability to mount devastating attacks, such as the explosion of a booby-trapped building Jan. 23 that an Iraqi relief agency says killed as many as 60 people and wounded 280 others. The following day the provincial police chief was killed up by a suicide bomber as he surveyed the wreckage.
Although overall violence in northern Iraq has dropped significantly since June, attacks in Mosul and the surrounding province of Nineveh have increased slightly over the past two weeks, when compared with the average of the past year, Hertling said. Currently about 20 attacks are carried out each day in the province, most of them in Mosul, he said.
Col. Stephen Twitty, a former commander of U.S. forces in Mosul, said there were about eight attacks a day in the city in October.
Insurgents are attacking more frequently with small arms and using fewer car bombs, which Hertling saw as "an indicator that shows the enemy in the city are less well supplied and less well organized."
"We have been incredibly successful in targeting the leadership of AQI and ISI, but we are seeing a continued reemergence or positioning of other leaders . . . to Mosul," Hertling said, using military abbreviations for al-Qaeda in Iraq and a related group, the Islamic State of Iraq.
The city's Arab population has become increasingly vocal about concerns over the rise of Kurdish influence, and U.S. military officials say they believe insurgents are hoping to exploit these divisions and further destabilize the city.
Iraqi officials from Mosul have been warning for months of the growing strength of insurgents and demanding that Iraq's central government commit more resources to prevent al-Qaeda in Iraq from becoming entrenched in the city.
In the aftermath of last week's violence, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that reinforcements were moving toward Mosul ahead of an operation he vowed would be the "decisive" battle against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Over the past year, the two Iraqi army divisions in Nineveh province have lacked three battalions that were sent to Baghdad to help with the counterinsurgency effort. Two of those battalions have returned to the province, and one of them, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 3rd Division, has recently begun operations in western Mosul. The additional troops are setting up several new outposts inside the city and are operating a provincial operations command, which was established Jan. 15 and is led by a two-star Iraqi general.
The U.S. military also has boosted its troop strength in the city over the past month by moving in an additional battalion. About 5,000 American soldiers and more than 40,000 Iraqi security forces are in the province. The city of Mosul, with a population of more than 1.8 million people, has 18,200 Iraqi soldiers and police officers.
U.S. military officials said that over the next few months there would be a gradual increase in Iraqi security forces and more frequent combat operations.
Tyson reported from the Pentagon. Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.