Hundreds Held in Iraqi Sweep
Many Fighters Reportedly Fled Before Government Push in North

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 18, 2008

BAGHDAD, May 17 -- Iraqi troops have detained hundreds of people in the northern city of Mosul, where a massive operation is underway to clear the area of Sunni extremists, Iraqi officials said Saturday. But many fighters had fled to other areas, according to the officials and a spokesman for the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The offensive in Iraq's third-largest city, where al-Qaeda fighters have gravitated from other parts of the country, is the latest attempt by the Shiite-led government to show it is capable of tackling a still-festering insurgency and gaining control of al-Qaeda's largest stronghold.

Lt. Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, the Iraqi army commander in Nineveh province, declared the operation, dubbed Lion's Roar, a success.

"We have captured 1,100 persons since the start of the Lion's Roar crackdown," Tawfiq said in an interview, adding that 94 suspects had been released after questioning. "The attacks of the militant groups have gone down."

In a phone interview, Abu Obaida al-Janabi, an al-Qaeda spokesman in Anbar province, said the group's top leaders, including Abu Ayu al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, are no longer in Mosul. He said they are in "quiet areas, not hot zones."

Janabi said that most fighters were warned in advance of the operation because the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government had trumpeted its plans for the offensive for weeks. The fighters, Janabi added, had moved their heavy weapons, along with "our explosives experts" and "engineers of our missile attacks," to other areas, while a small group of volunteers stayed behind to fight "a war of exhaustion" against Iraqi and U.S. forces.

He said that those detained by Iraqi forces were not al-Qaeda fighters but merely men "with long beards and who attend mosques," who were known to be anti-American. "So far only eight of our men have been captured," Janabi said.

Also Saturday, a booby-trapped bicycled exploded near a U.S. convoy in the western city of Fallujah, wounding one person, police said. Hours earlier, gunmen killed a Sunni religious leader who had recently publicly criticized al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters, said Capt. Mohammed Ali, a Fallujah police official.

The attacks were the latest in a string of bombings in Anbar province in recent weeks. On Friday, a suspected insurgent rammed a truck laden with explosives into a police station, killing a 2-month-old girl and wounding five policemen and seven civilians, Iraqi police said.

In Baqubah, another insurgent bastion about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, a female suicide bomber detonated explosives near the office of a U.S.-allied group Saturday, injuring several people, according to police. Moments later, a suicide car bomber exploded near an Iraqi police patrol and ambulance team heading to the scene, killing one woman and injuring 16 other people, police said.

The violence coincided with the arrival in Iraq of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who made an unannounced visit Saturday. Pelosi met with several Iraqi officials, including Maliki, who traveled down from Mosul, where he has been overseeing the offensive, and with U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

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