Saturday, December 29, 2007

US: al-Qaida Fears Iraq Sunni Councils

BAGHDAD (AP) - The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Saturday al-Qaida was becoming increasingly fearful over losing the support of Sunni Arabs and had begun targeting the leaders of tribal councils who have switched allegiances in favor of America.

Gen. David Petraeus made the comments a few hours before a new audiotape of Osama bin Laden emerged, warning Iraq's Sunni Arabs against joining the councils fighting al-Qaida or participating in any unity government.

"The most evil of the traitors are those who trade away their religion for the sake of their mortal life," bin Laden said in the tape posted on the Web.

He denounced Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the leader of the Anbar Awakening Council, a tribal force fighting al-Qaida in western Iraq. Abu Risha was killed in a bombing in September. The Awakening Council has since morphed into a mass movement that now includes more than 70,000 fighters in Anbar, Baghdad and other Sunni-dominated provinces.

Also known as Concerned Local Citizens, the councils are funded by the United States and have slowly started becoming a political force - organizing themselves and actively seeking more participation in Iraq's Shiite-dominated political life.

Bin Laden said U.S. and Iraqi officials are seeking to set up a "national unity government" joining the country's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

"Our duty is to foil these dangerous schemes, which try to prevent the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq, which would be a wall of resistance against American schemes to divide Iraq," he said.

Petraeus said that al-Qaida's fear of the councils was obvious. The councils, along with the inflow of thousands of additional U.S. troops, and a six-month cease-fire announced in August by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have led to a 60 percent decline in violence since June.

"They attach enormous importance to these Concerned Local Citizens groups, these tribes that have turned against them, and to the general sense that Sunni Arab communities have rejected them more and more around Iraq," Petraeus told a small group of Western journalists.

"You can see this in their public statements," he added. "They are trying to counter this and they have done so by attacking them," which is increasingly turning Sunnis against them.

He said this shift was pushing Sunnis back into the political process they effectively abandoned after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Iraq's Sunni Arabs boycotted the first elections in January 2005.

"It is very, very important for them to have a stake in the new Iraq," he said of the Sunni and urged Iraq's Shiite prime minister to reach out to the minority.

"This is about helping the Iraqi government win the hearts and minds" of the Sunni, he added. "That's why it is so important for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reach out to the Awakening in Anbar."

Iraq's interior ministry spokesman claimed that 75 percent of al-Qaida in Iraq's terrorist network had been destroyed in 2007, and gave some of the credit to the rise of anti-al-Qaida in Iraq councils.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf said the disruption of the terrorist network was due to improvements in the Iraqi security forces - which he said had made strides in weeding out commanders and officers with ties to militias or who were involved in criminal activities.

Khalaf's assertion that three-fourths of al-Qaida in Iraq had been destroyed could not be independently verified and he did not elaborate on how the percentage was determined.

"Their activity is now limited to certain places north of Baghdad," he said at a news conference. "We're working on pursuing those groups, that is the coming fight."

Petraeus said that despite a number of successes against al-Qaida in recent months, destroying the group was still a top concern for the U.S. military and Iraq's biggest security challenge in 2008.

But he warned that al-Qaida remained active and lethal, despite being forced to flee north into Diyala and Ninevah provinces from their former strongholds in Anbar and Baghdad.

"It is the most significant enemy Iraq faces because it carries out the most horrific attacks, that causes the greatest damage to infrastructure, and seems most intent on re-igniting ethno-sectarian violence," Petraeus told reporters.

He likened al-Qaida to a boxer that has been knocked down a couple of times but keeps "coming up off the canvas, has a lethal right hand, can land very tough blows and has demonstrated the ability to do that periodically in recent months."

He blamed al-Qaida for a three deadly bombings that killed 49 people in the past week, including 14 who died Friday when a car bomb blew up in central Baghdad.

In Ninevah's capital of Mosul, which remains an al-Qaida stronghold, police reported that gunmen killed three members of a patrol in the eastern part of the city.

Another group of gunmen attacked the head of the police department's press office, killing one of his bodyguards and wounding him. In nearby Tal Afar, on the road to Syria, police said by five insurgents were killed in gun battles with Iraqi and U.S. forces.

According to Petraeus, al-Qaida has been significantly degraded but is far from being wiped out. He said the group was having serious problems and had resorted to racketeering and other forms of organized crime to fund its activities.

Concerted actions by a number of Arab nations had helped reduce the inflow of foreign funds and fighters. And he said a crackdown by neighboring Syria had reduced the flow of insurgents through that country by 50 percent.

"We think that funding from abroad has gone down and have intelligence that indicates that," Petraeus said. "Some of what we are told is that they are really struggling to buy gas for the vehicles. You are seeing a much more survival level of conversation" among al-Qaida extremists.



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