KIRKUK (AFP) â€” Iraqi army units are searching for Al Qaeda members in a remote hilly area where they are believed to have fled after falling out of favour with tribal leaders in former strongholds.
For the past two days, Iraqi army units, with US air support, have been moving through the Hamreen region, southwest of the city of Kirkuk, which they say has become a major insurgent stronghold.
“Our plan is to eliminate all pockets of the insurgency and this will go on for the next month to search out their bases,” said Major General Anwar Hama Amin, leader of the Kirkuk-based division of the Iraqi army.
“These operations are being conducted according to intelligence we have received, though we have yet to clash with the insurgents because they keep fleeing our forces.”
Ministry of defence spokesman Mohammad Askari acknowledged that low-key reconnaissance operations were currently under way in the area on suspicion that Abu Mussab Zarqawi and his followers might be hiding out there.
Should any evidence be discovered to back this information up, he added, larger numbers of troops would be deployed.
The remote and inaccessible region borders several insurgent hotpots, including the oil-refining town of Baiji in the northwest, the town of Samarra in the southwest, Kirkuk to the northeast and Baquba to the southeast.
The areas bordering this region have seen a high incidence of attacks on US and Iraqi security forces as well as assassinations of prominent figures and kidnappings.
The Iraqi army believes that as relations between Al Qaeda leader Zarqawi and local tribes in Anbar and Salaheddin provinces have deteriorated, the organisation has had to find a new headquarters.
“The tribes have been giving us information on the location of the Zarqawi people in these areas,” said a high ranking army officer based in Tikrit who preferred to remain anonymous.
“They [Al Qaeda] started killing religious and tribal leaders, as well as their children working in the army,” he said, explaining the falling-out.
A number of prominent tribal leaders in Kirkuk, Tikrit and Fallujah known for their opposition to attacks on Iraqis, including the security forces, have been assassinated in recent months.
“We are for expelling the occupier, for an honest resistance, not one that kills innocent Iraqis who are sons of the country,” said Jassem Mumtaz, who became sheikh of the Al Bu Baz tribe in Samarra, after his brother Hekmet was killed by Al Qaeda supporters in October.
Similar developments took place in Anbar province when a council of tribal leaders told Al Qaeda to cease targeting security forces since they had been telling their followers to join police and army.
In early January there was a devastating suicide attack on a police recruiting centre in Ramadi that killed 70 young men from the city.
They also told Al Qaeda to restrict their activities to areas outside major population centres.
On Tuesday, city council leader Sheikh Kamal Shakur of Fallujah in Anbar province was assassinated. The next day, Ahmed Abdel Wahab Juburi, a member of the Hawija city council near Kirkuk, was also killed.
US forces have also noted the deterioration in relations between Anbar’s tribes and Al Qaeda.
“What we’re finding is indeed the people of Anbar, Fallujah and Ramadi specifically, have decided to turn against terrorist and foreign fighters,” US military spokesman Major General Rick Lynch told reporters Thursday.
“The tribal leaders, if you will, said ‘that’s enough, let’s take out Zarqawi and his network and get him out of our cities,'” he added. “We have found in Ramadi and Fallujah the locals establishing checkpoints to keep the terrorists and foreign fighters out of their area.”
Iraqi police, meanwhile, have beefed up their security checkpoints between the area of Tikrit and Hamreen. Where there were once just three police checkpoints, authorities have put in place 10 fixed ones and another 30 mobile ones.
There have been a number of incidents of violence on Thursday in this region, including an attack on an Iraqi army convoy in Dhiluya just east of Samarra by insurgents, killing one soldier. One insurgent also died.
In Samarra itself, a children’s hospital being constructed with money from foreign donors, was blown to pieces, according to police Thursday.