( dpa ) - The Iraqi army was gathering troops and military equipment in the northern city of Mosul Thursday in preparation for a big offensive against al-Qaeda militants expected to be launched within hours, local media reported.
"All necessary steps have been taken for a successful implementation of the military campaign, which will be backed by air support from the coalition forces," Mosul police chief General Wathik al-Hamdani told the state-owned al-Sabah newspaper.
"The target is to enable security forces to take command of hot spots that are the bases of terrorist elements, such al-Qaeda and other loyal groups," the general said.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Friday a "decisive battle" would be fought against al-Qaeda insurgents in Mosul, the country's third largest city.
But the US military has disputed al-Maliki's description of the offensive as decisive, saying it could not validate this claim.
US and Iraqi commanders say al-Qaeda militants and their loyalists have regrouped in the northern provinces after they were partially flushed out of Baghdad and the western Anbar province during major offensives last year.
Troops are to be mainly positioned in Mosul and Talafar in Nineveh province while security is tightened at checkpoints on the province's border with Syria, especially the Rabiya crossing, according to al- Sabah.
"Al-Rabiya crossing will not be closed during the offensive as the intention is not to launch a war on Mosul. Troops seek to achieve specific goals during the offensive," General Riad Aziz, the commander of operations in Mosul, told the newspaper.
Mosul - a multi-ethnic city 450 kilometres north of Baghdad - has recently been the scene of deadly attacks. A powerful blast shook the city last Wednesday as Iraqi soldiers went into a block of flats packed with explosives.
At least 60 people were killed and 280 wounded in the blast, many of them women and children, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent.
The attack is causing a furore among residents, who are blaming the government for failing to protect them and not providing aid and shelter.