Gunmen raked a car with machine-gun fire in the northern city of Mosul yesterday, killing three foreigners and their driver. They then cut off the head of one of their victims.
The killings show that at the same time as the US was recapturing Fallujah in a heavily publicised assault it largely lost control of Mosul, Iraq’s northern capital. Though US troops launched a counter-attack, their grip on the city remains tenuous. The four men who died yesterday were travelling in a white sedan when it was attacked with automatic weapons and set on fire at a traffic intersection in Mosul.
One of the foreigners was briefly captured by the insurgents, according to an eyewitness. When he tried to escape they cut his head off and left his body in a pool of blood.
A photographer for Reuters news agency saw four bodies lying beside the burning car. Three of those who died appeared to be foreigners, one of whom looked Turkish and the other two European. The fourth body, possibly of the driver, was partly burnt, but appeared to be that of an Arab.
The men were carrying small automatic weapons, indicating that they may have been working for one of the private security companies in Iraq.
Mosul, a city on the Tigris river with a population of 1.2 million, is largely populated by Sunni Muslims but has a large Kurdish minority. It has increasingly fallen into the hands of Sunni insurgents over the past six weeks.
Insurgents launched an uprising on 10 November, two days after the US Marines started their attack on Fallujah, and stormed 10 police stations. Out of a local police force of 8,000, all but 1,000 have deserted and only 400 of those remaining are considered reliable.
Earlier in the year, the US occupation of Mosul by the 101st Airborne was presented as a model of what the occupation should have been in the rest of the country. Several thousand army officers publicly renounced Baathism. The local police force was being built up. The unpopular political parties of returned exiles in Baghdad were kept at bay.
Until the past few months, guerrilla attacks in Mosul were both less frequent and less effective than further south around Baghdad. This may have been because Mosul and Nineveh province, of which it is the centre, was never seen as a bastion of support for Saddam Hussein. But the city was always a nationalist centre and a recruiting ground for the officer corps of the Iraqi army. The defence minister under the old regime was usually from Mosul.
Unlike Fallujah, the guerrillas did not contest the recapture of Mosul by US and Iraqi forces in November. Leaflets were issued instructing fighters to hide their weapons and stay in the city. Since then 150 bodies have found, many of them members of the National Guard or other security forces. US forces in Iraq are being built up from 138,000 to 150,000 men and are already stretched trying to hold Sunni Muslim cities and towns around Baghdad. They were never able to surround Fallujah, even at the height of the battle last month, and many fighters escaped.
Much of the US Army in Iraq is tied down providing support services, guarding fixed positions or protecting convoys that are frequently attack. US patrols often seem to serve no particular purpose but severely disrupt traffic because Iraqi drivers do not want to get close to the American vehicles in case they are attacked.
In Fallujah, the mayor, Mahmoud Ibrahim, said the first families would start to return to the south of the city yesterday. But this may be in doubt because there is shelling is continuing in northern Fallujah.
There are more than 250,000 refugees who fled the city to seek shelter in Baghdad 35 miles away or the nearby city of Ramadi. Others are in camps on the city outskirts or in neighbouring villages. Fallujah has had no power or water since the US assault and these will take time to restore.