A claim by Iraq's most feared terror group that it is behind the slaughter of Iraqi security force members in Mosul has raised fears that it has expanded to the north after losing its purported base in Fallujah.
On Sunday, a statement posted on an Islamist Web site in the name of al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for killing 17 members of Iraq's security forces and a Kurdish militiaman in Mosul, where insurgents rose up this month in support of guerrillas facing a U.S.-led assault in Fallujah.
The claim could not be independently verified but the style of writing appeared similar to other statements by al-Zarqawi's group, which is responsible for numerous car bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages in Iraq.
At least 50 people have been killed in Mosul in the past 10 days. Most of the victims are believed to have been supporters of Iraq's interim government or members of its fledgling security forces.
In other developments:
Separately, al-Zarqawi's group claimed it detonated a car bomb near a U.S. military convoy in the Hamam al-Alil area, near Mosul. It said the blast destroyed an armored vehicle and damaged another.
Although the claims were not verifiable, they raised fears that al-Zarqawi's organization had spread to Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, 225 miles north of Baghdad. At least 43 suspected insurgents have been arrested as part of an ongoing operation to re-establish control of Mosul, a military statement said.
Al-Zarqawi's group, formerly known as Tawhid and Jihad, was believed to have been headquartered in Fallujah, the Sunni Arab insurgent bastion 40 miles west of Baghdad, before U.S. and Iraqi forces overran the city this month.
Al-Zarqawi and the city's two major Iraqi insurgent leaders, Sheik Abdullah al-Janabi and Omar Hadid, apparently escaped the onslaught and remain at large. Before the assault, U.S. intelligence officers speculated that al-Zarqawi would try to relocate to Mosul if he lost his base in Fallujah.
U.S. and Iraqi officials launched the offensive against Fallujah in hopes of pacifying Sunni areas north and west of the capital so elections could be held there Jan. 30.
Meanwhile, three truck loads of humanitarian aid from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society arrived Sunday afternoon Fallujah. Supplies of food, water, blankets and medicine are finally flowing into Fallujah three weeks after the U.S.-led offensive which captured the city from Sunni Muslim insurgents.
Red Crescent official Saeed Ismaeel Haqi said he would be meeting with U.S. officials to see what could be done to speed the delivery of supplies to civilians either still in the city or villages around the U.S. security cordon where people from the city fled when the assault began Nov. 8.
South of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched raids that killed 17 suspected insurgents, Iraqi police said. The raids included a dawn speedboat assault by U.S. Marines and British and Iraqi troops on suspected insurgent hideouts along the Euphrates River, British media reported.
The speedboat assault was the biggest operation of its kind so far in Iraq, with 130 troops racing up the Euphrates River at dawn Sunday in boats armed with machine guns and grenade launchers, British media reported.
Troops were targeting an area south of Baghdad, where Sunni insurgents have taken control of a string of towns and cities between the capital and the Shiite Muslim shrines of Najaf and Karbala.
However, the raid produced only a few small weapons caches and documents believed buried by a Saddam Hussein loyalist, British media said.
U.S. Marines, Iraqi commandos and British troops launched an offensive known as "Operation Plymouth Rock" in the area last Tuesday as a follow-up to the assault on Fallujah.
Unlike the Fallujah assault, which included some of the most intense urban combat by a U.S. force since the Vietnam War, Operation Plymouth Rock is a series of raids aimed at clearing insurgents from a wider and less densely populated area, known as the "triangle of death."