BAGHDAD - Shaken by two days of deadly bombings, the government said yesterday that it would dispatch several thousand more security forces to Mosul in a "decisive" bid to drive Al Qaeda in Iraq from its last major stronghold.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave no details on troop strength or when the additional police and soldiers would arrive in Iraq's main northern city. But it added to growing signs that Mosul could represent a pivotal showdown with insurgents chased north by US-led offensives.
"Today, our troops started moving toward Mosul . . . and the fight there will be decisive," Maliki said during a speech in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala.
The challenge, however, is whether the Iraqi forces have the firepower and training to lead an offensive into Iraq's third-largest city. The US military is relatively thin across northern Iraq and has signaled no immediate plans to shift troops from key zones in and around Baghdad.
Mosul is now considered the main logistical hub for Al Qaeda in Iraq because of its size and location - sitting at crossroads between Baghdad, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Many extremists fled north as US-led forces began gaining ground in former insurgent strongholds last year, aided by Sunni tribes that rose up against Al Qaeda and its backers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said 3,000 police were being sent to the Mosul region to augment the understaffed force.
Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, has about 18,000 police officers. But only about 3,000 of those operate in the city of nearly 2 million, according to police spokesman Saeed al-Jubouri.
A Defense Ministry official said several thousand Iraqi soldiers would be moved from Baghdad and Anbar province. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is sensitive.
"We have asked the prime minister to send us fresh units because we cannot defeat the terrorists with the weak units we have now in the city," said Major General Riyad Jalal, a senior Iraqi officer in the Mosul area. "We need new equipment and stronger weapons because most of our security members have only rifles."
Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, has become a fulcrum on two fronts.
First the United States is trying to keep Iraqi security forces in the lead as a major test of Washington's long-range plans, which seek to keep a smaller American force in Iraq as backup for local soldiers and police.
Second, US officials say Mosul has become the only remaining major city in Iraq where Al Qaeda is able to operate with any freedom. Major centers of Al Qaeda activity in the past - including the western Anbar province, Baghdad, and Baqubah north of the capital - no longer offer easy refuge.
Maliki announced reinforcements for Mosul two days after an abandoned apartment building, believed to be used as a bomb-making factory, was blown apart as the Iraqi Army was investigating tips about a weapons cache.
At least 34 people were killed and 224 wounded when the blast tore through surrounding houses in the Zanjili neighborhood, a poverty-ridden district on the west bank of the Tigris River. No soldiers were reported killed.
A suicide bomber then killed a police chief and two other officers Thursday as they toured the devastation. Residents taunted the chief and pelted him with rocks moments before he was killed.
Nineveh province leader Duraid Kashmola said a vehicle ban would remain until 6 a.m. today.
Maliki issued the troop order in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad. He was in the holy city after a roadside bomb targeted a senior aide of Iraq's Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani the night before.
The aide, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, was wounded in the arm. Two bodyguards were killed and two were wounded, according to local police. Maliki met with the white-turbaned cleric, who wore a bandage on his right forearm.