MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Attacks in the northern city of Mosul have halved since security forces moved to drive al Qaeda from its last urban stronghold in Iraq, but the militant group is far from finished.
Bombings, shootings and kidnappings occur nearly every day. Many businessmen have fled Iraq’s third largest city. And while restaurants in the capital Baghdad now stay open well into the night, Mosul largely shuts down when the sun sets.
“Al Qaeda does what it likes in Mosul. It is still here in force,” said Ashraf Mohammed, a clothes shop owner.
The offensive in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province is part of a campaign by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to stamp the government’s authority over areas previously controlled by Sunni Arab al Qaeda militants or Shi‘ite militias.
The operation is being led by Iraqi security forces with support from U.S. troops.
Among a dozen residents interviewed by Reuters, several said security was better since operations were stepped up two months ago. But fear of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda remains ever present.
At a news conference on Sunday, Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf was asked if the offensive had been a failure.
“Nineveh has not failed ... There have been some reviews of the Nineveh operation and we will support the military leadership of Nineveh with a series of actions that will make it a success, and soon,” Khalaf replied.
Mosul is a key transport hub to neighboring countries. It sits across the Tigris River from the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, and is a melting pot of all Iraq’s major sectarian and ethnic groups.
The U.S. military has described Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, as al Qaeda’s last major urban haven in Iraq.
It says attacks had halved by the end of June to an average of 60 a week since the operation began in mid May, although that was up from a low of 40 early in the offensive.
Early this month, the U.S. military described recent attacks in northern Iraq as a “blip” and said al Qaeda had been “significantly disrupted.”
Some residents in Mosul are not so sure.
“There are still many areas where shops are closed at night because of fear. Yes there’s more checkpoints, but they haven’t stopped attacks,” said Ahmed Dabbagh, sitting in a coffee shop.
Among the hardest hit in Mosul have been minorities, such as the city’s small Christian community, residents say.
The kidnapping and killing of Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho earlier this year drew worldwide condemnation. An al Qaeda leader was sentenced to death in May over the killing.
“The last of the Christians have emigrated and closed their shops,” said Bahjat Hamdoun, a mechanic.
Al Qaeda regrouped in northern Iraq after being pushed from its havens in Baghdad and western Anbar province.
In Mosul, it was able to exploit a volatile ethnic mix.
Sunni Arabs, a minority in Iraq, are numerically dominant in Mosul but have little representation in local government because they boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005. That allowed Kurds to take control of the local administration.
Fresh local elections are expected this year, with Mosul seen as one potential hotspot for election-related violence.
U.S.-backed Sunni Arab neighbourhood patrol units are also credited with helping deal al Qaeda a blow in other parts Iraq.
But Kurdish fears of the emergence of Sunni Arab militias have hampered the formation of similar groups in Mosul.
The tensions have led some Mosul residents to accuse various ethnic groups of working only to protect their own interests.
“There must be a complete change of leadership and new volunteers to these (neighbourhood) units ... There are many Sunni Arab volunteers,” said Rasheed al Zaydan, a Sunni Arab tribal leader in Mosul.
Nineveh’s deputy governor Khisro Goran, a Kurd, said the security crackdown just needed more time.
“We cannot say the military operation has failed because it is still in full swing,” he said.
Writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Dean Yates and Samia Nakhoul