MOSUL, Iraq – Iraqi officials said police on Monday arrested a man suspected of being a top Al Qaeda in Iraq figure in the northern city of Mosul, where security forces have been carrying out an intensified crackdown to root out the terror network.
The U.S. military said it was looking into the report. Reports of high-level Al Qaeda arrests in the past have sometimes proven incorrect.
Maj. Gen. Ahmed Taha, of the Iraqi Interior Ministry, identified the detainee as Al Qaeda in Iraq's "wali" — or "governor" — in Mosul, which would make him the terror network's top figure in the city and surrounding region.
But a security official involved in the detention said officials were still interrogating the detainee, Abdul-Khaliq al-Sabawi, to confirm whether he is the Mosul wali. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the arrest.
Al-Sabawi was captured in a morning raid in Salahuddin province, which neighbors Mosul's Ninevah province to the south, said Taha, director of the ministry's internal affairs office. He did not elaborate.
Some of Mosul's Al Qaeda figures are believed to have fled or stayed out of the city before the sweep began more than a week ago — the latest in a series of high-profile operations launched by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to break the hold of armed groups in several areas around the country in the past two months.
So far, more than 1,300 people have been arrested in and around Mosul in the operation, though 240 were cleared of suspicion and released, said Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal, the deputy interior minister for intelligence and security affairs.
Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, has been the most prominent Al Qaeda in Iraq urban stronghold since the group lost control of cities in the western province of Anbar over the past year. Al Qaeda militants and other Sunni Arab insurgents have used the city to carry out major attacks in northern and central Iraq in recent months.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have been carrying out targeted raids on suspected militants in the city — and so far the sweep has seen almost no clashes, a sign insurgents are seeking to lay low or escape. The Defense Ministry reported the first death in the crackdown, saying raids Monday left one militant dead, along with 78 people arrested. The ministry statement gave no details on how the death occurred.
On Sunday, U.S and Iraqi forces increased a parallel operation in regions between Mosul and the Syrian border aimed at intercepting fleeing Al Qaeda figures, an official in the Iraqi security forces' Ninevah command center said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Al-Maliki ordered the Mosul sweep after two similar crackdowns against Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra and Baghdad's Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. The Basra crackdown, which began in late March, sparked a wave of violence by Shiite militias across the south.
The intensified fighting has since been calmed by fragile truces, but skirmishes, raids and sporadic attacks have continued.
Lt. Col. Farhan Qassim, the police chief of the southern town of Suq al-Shiyoukh, was killed Monday morning by a bomb that exploded in his office, police in the nearby city of Nasiriyah said. The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared becoming targets themselves.
The town, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of Baghdad, was the scene of heavy fighting on April 19 between police and members of the Mahdi Army — the militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — that left 22 people dead.
The attack was the latest sign of infiltration of police by Shiite militiamen. A week ago, a bomb detonated in the province's main police command in Nasiriyah, wounding two officers. Four policemen were arrested soon afterward.
Farther south, Iraqi soldiers and police launched pre-dawn raids in four neighborhoods of Basra, including two Shiite militia enclaves, arresting several suspects, Basra's operations command Maj. Gen. Mohammed Jawad Huwaidi said, without giving a precise number of arrests.
The sweep was targeting gunmen believed to be behind an attack on a police checkpoint in the center of the city that killed a policeman and wounded three others, Huwaidi said.
Also Monday, Iraq's largest Sunni Arab party said it rejected an apology made by the U.S. military after an American sniper used a Quran for target practice. The unidentified soldier was disciplined and removed from Iraq, the military said Sunday.
The Iraqi Islamic Party called the shooting of Islam's holy book a "flagrant assault on Muslim sacraments" and that the "apology alone" was not enough. It said the U.S. military should impose the "severest punishment" on the soldier to ensure others do not repeat his act.
The Quran, with 14 bullet holes and graffiti marked on its pages, was found on May 11 by Iraqis near a former base outside the town of Radwaniyah, west of Baghdad.
On Saturday, the top U.S. commander held a formal ceremony apologizing to Radwaniyah's Sunni tribal leaders, vowing the act would not be repeated.