BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took personal charge yesterday of a military operation to rout Al Qaeda in Iraq in what the United States has described as the terror group's last major stronghold, even as a tenuous cease-fire took hold over Baghdad's Sadr City slum.
The campaign in the northern city of Mosul was the third by Maliki in two months as he attempts to stamp out Shi'ite militants and Sunni extremists across the country.
Also yesterday, a suicide bomber killed 22 people and wounded 40 in an attack on a funeral tent in a village west of Baghdad, Iraqi police Colonel Faisal al-Zubaie said.
Many Sunnis opposed to Al Qaeda were at the funeral for Taha Obaid, a school principal who was shot dead Tuesday.
South of the capital, explosives strapped onto a young girl killed an Iraqi captain and wounded four soldiers yesterday. Iraqi Army Lieutenant Ahmed Ali said the explosives were detonated by remote control as the girl approached the Iraqi commander in Youssifiyah, in the area once known as the Triangle of Death.
Both Iraqi and American spokesmen confirmed that the attack took place, and the US military said it was investigating. Major John Hall, a coalition spokesman, said US reports indicated one Iraqi soldier was killed and seven wounded.
Maliki's flight to Mosul, 225 miles northwest of the capital, mirrors a trip he took almost two months ago to the southern city of Basra, where government troops fought radical Shi'ite militias. That fighting spread to Sadr City, a Shi'ite enclave in Baghdad, where a cease-fire to end fighting was reached this week.
Associated Press Television News footage showed Maliki being briefed by senior Iraqi officers and officials who used large maps to point out their operations. Maliki made no comment.
"The Iraqi prime minister has arrived in Mosul to supervise the military operations, and its second phase is due to start today," Mohammed al-Askari, the spokesman of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, told The Associated Press. "The main aim of this operation is to purge and clean Ninevah province of all militants and their weapons and declare it a safe area."
Mosul is considered the last important urban staging ground for Al Qaeda in Iraq after the terror group lost its strongholds in Baghdad and other areas during the US. troop buildup last year.
Maliki has been promising a crackdown since January. But no major offensives have been mounted even as Al Qaeda in Iraq tried to exert its influence through attacks and intimidation.
Al Qaeda and its supporters would find themselves without a major base of operations if ousted from Iraq's third-largest city, which occupies transport crossroads between Baghdad, Syria, and other points. But a drawn-out fight could serve to rally insurgents and expose potential security weaknesses where US troops are thin and Iraqi forces must take a front-line role.
"We are closely linked with Iraqi security forces and will support operations that the prime minister is developing over the next couple of days," said a US military spokesman, Major General Kevin Bergner. He added that Iraqi troops had arrested more than 500 people and captured five weapons caches. He said the operation was shifting gears.
In western Iraq, a senior US commander said yesterday that Al Qaeda persists and that a recent increase in attacks shows that the group remains a threat there. A group of Al Qaeda fighters recently infiltrated the area, went to the homes of 11 Iraqi police officers in the Anbar town of Husaybahand, and beheaded them and one of their sons, he said.
Marine Major General John Kelly, commander of US forces in Anbar province, said it appeared the insurgents crossed from the Syrian border, talked their way through a checkpoint, and then went around the town grabbing police individually.
"Al Qaeda is not defeated. It's an ideology," he said yesterday. "Al Qaeda is still operational but on a smaller scale."