Zarqawi, al Qaeda are heading out, U.S. general says

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Al Qaeda in Iraq and its presumed leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, have conceded strategic defeat and are on their way out of the country, a top U.S. military official contended yesterday.

The group’s failure to disrupt national elections and a constitutional referendum last year “was a tactical admission by Zarqawi that their strategy had failed,” said Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who commands the XVIII Airborne Corps.

“They no longer view Iraq as fertile ground to establish a caliphate and as a place to conduct international terrorism,” he said in an address at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Gen. Vines’ statement came as news broke that coalition and Iraqi forces had killed an associate of Osama bin Laden’s during an early morning raid near Abu Ghraib about two weeks ago.

Rafid Ibrahim Fattah aka Abu Umar al Kurdi served as a liaison between terrorist networks and was linked to Taliban members in Afghanistan, Pakistani-based extremists and other senior al Qaeda leaders, the military said yesterday.

In the past six months, al Kurdi had worked as a terrorist cell leader in Baqouba. Prior to that, he had traveled extensively Pakistan, Iran and Iraq and formed a relationship with al Qaeda senior leaders in 1999 while in Afghanistan.

He also had ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, formed while he was in Iran and Pakistan, and joined the jihad in Afghanistan in 1989, the military said. He was killed March 27.

Gen. Vines said the foreign terrorists had made a strategic mistake when they tried to intimidate and deny Iraqis a way to vote.

“I believe Zarqawi discredited himself with the Iraqi people because of his willingness to slaughter Iraqi people,” he said.

Huthayafa Azzam, whose father was seen as a political mentor of bin Laden, told reporters in Jordan in early April that Zarqawi had been replaced as head of the terrorist fight in Iraq in an effort to put an Iraqi at the head of the organization.

Azzam said Zarqawi had “made many political mistakes,” including excessive violence and the bombing last November of a Jordanian hotel, and as a result was being “confined to military action.”

Gen. Vines, who from January 2005 to January 2006 led all coalition forces in Iraq, did not comment on those reports. But he did caution that although the foreign extremists were leaving Iraq “looking for more fertile ground,” they could come back.

“The question now is what kind of government is going to be formed and is it going to be credible,” he said, acknowledging that Iran had significant influence over Iraq’s religious Shi’ite population.

“Iran wants us out, but not too soon — after a Shi’ite government friendly to Iran is established,” Gen. Vines said. “Iran’s view is that the current government is not strong enough, and if we pulled out now, there would be a low-level civil war.”

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