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Top officer says U.S. forces stopping al Qaeda flow in Iraq

U.S. forces in Iraq are stemming the flow of foreign al Qaeda terrorists into the country, the commander of the U.S. Central Command told a Senate panel yesterday.

Adm. William Fallon told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. military forces are "working very hard" to block al Qaeda fighters entering the country through Syria.

"There's little doubt that there was a pipeline coming through Syria that was enabling these people to get into the fight," Adm. Fallon said. "But in the last couple of months, the significant turn to the government and coalition side by people in Anbar I believe has got to be having a detrimental effect on this, because that's the conduit, if you would, where these people were coming."

Adm. Fallon was referring to a number of senior Sunni leaders in Anbar province who have switched sides from supporting the insurgency to backing U.S. and Iraqi government troops. Several prominent religious leaders have turned against al Qaeda, mainly because the group's indiscriminate bombings are killing innocent Iraqis, according to U.S. military officials.

The increased pressure on the underground transit route "is not particularly hospitable to al Qaeda or foreign fighters; we'd expect to see some positive results from that," Adm. Fallon said.

"The dramatic shift in the atmospherics and the reality in Anbar from six months ago to today I think is indicative of what could happen in this country," he said.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a speech yesterday that the United States needs to be steadfast in fighting the war against terrorism, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"Our country is troubled and divided by a long and difficult war in Iraq," he said. "We want our troops to come home and be out of harm's way, and yet most know or at least sense that leaving chaos behind us in Iraq will bring dramatically more suffering for Iraqis, and also disaster for the Middle East and ultimately for us."

He noted Winston Churchill's comment on the United States in 1943 that "the price of greatness is responsibility."

Adm. Fallon said the overall security environment and violence levels in Iraq and Baghdad are improving.

"My sense is -- first glance -- about half of the area looks dramatically improved and levels of violence lessened," he said of Baghdad.

Still, the four-star admiral said sectarian differences among Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds in Iraq is significant.

"And the ability of these three major factions to work together is going to be the tale of the tape here," he said. "This is challenging for them, because they have historically only looked after their own interests. There have not been national leaders who have a broader view that would, I think, take into consideration all the interests and desires of the population. That's what Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki's trying to do."

The main problem is continuing attacks by Sunni insurgents who allied with al Qaeda to conduct massive vehicle bombings as part of a strategy to "send a signal of insecurity," he said.

Adm. Fallon said so far the Shia Iraqis have not conducted major retaliatory attacks in response to the car bombings.

"We literally hold our breath," he said. "I think one of the reasons is the prime minister and his leadership trying to keep this stamped down."

At the Pentagon, Brig. Gen. Perry Wiggins, deputy director for operations for the Joint Staff, said support from local Iraqis is helping to shut down insurgent networks.

"Through these tips and the hard work of our forces, we're gaining a better understanding of the infrastructure supporting these attacks," he said.

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