- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) – Senior leaders of al-Qaida may be diverting fighters from the war in Iraq to the Afghan frontier area, the top American commander in Iraq told the Associated Press on Saturday.

Gen. David Petraeus also said al-Qaida may be reconsidering Iraq as its highest priority war front.

“There is some intelligence that has picked this up,” he said in the interview in his office at the U.S. Embassy along the Tigris River. “It’s not solid gold intelligence,” he added, stressing that the reliability of the information has not been confirmed and that it does not mean al-Qaida has given up on Iraq.

Nonetheless, he cited the signs as part of a broadly positive review of conditions in Iraq, where al-Qaida fighters over the past year have been driven almost entirely from Baghdad and pummeled in other urban areas.

The other main source of violence over the past year – Shiite militia extremists – also has been curbed. Petraeus said that whether leaders of those Shiite groups, who fled in many cases to Iran, end up returning to fight for control of such Baghdad sections as Sadr City will be a critical bellwether.

“This will be very important because it will be an indicator of whether Iran intends to start a new chapter in its relationship with Iraq, or not,” he said.

Petraeus said his information about a possible shift in al-Qaida resources away from Iraq was based on human intelligence, meaning informants. If confirmed, it could have profound implications not only for Iraq, where terrorist and insurgent violence has been on a steep decline, but also for Afghanistan, where militants crossing the border from Pakistan are a growing threat to the government in Kabul.

“There are unsubstantiated rumors and reflections that perhaps some foreign fighters originally intended for Iraq may have gone to the FATA,” he said, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, where extremists have a secure staging ground for movements into neighboring Afghanistan.

“We do think that there is some assessment ongoing as to the continued viability of al-Qaida’s fight in Iraq,” he said. “They’re not going to abandon Iraq, they’re not going to write it off. None of that. But what they certainly may do is start to provide some of those resources that would have come to Iraq to Pakistan, possibly Afghanistan.”

Petraeus said that until now, communications from senior leaders of al-Qaida to their lieutenants in Iraq have made clear that Iraq is its highest priority for establishing an Islamic state within reach of the West.

“That could be under review,” Petraeus said. “We do think they are considering what should be the main effort.”

The implication of Petraeus’s remark is that al-Qaida might be turning more attention, resources and fighters to Afghanistan, where more than 30,000 U.S. troops are part of an international security force that has fought increasingly bloody battles over the past two years, especially in the south.

This information, while unconfirmed, parallels reports that fewer foreign fighters are joining the insurgency in Iraq.

“We do know the foreign fighter flow into Iraq has been reduced very substantially,” he said.

Even if it proves true that al-Qaida is putting less effort into Iraq, Petraeus said that does not mean the terrorist network that originally was based in Afghanistan before U.S. forces invaded the country in October 2001 will give up entirely on fighting in Iraq.

“Al-Qaida very much remains a factor” in Iraq, he said.

Petraeus is due to leave his post in Baghdad in September to head U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan as well as Iraq. He is to be replaced in Bahgdad by Gen. Raymond Odierno, who until February had served as the No. 2 commander in Iraq.

In the AP interview, Petraeus also applauded the news Saturday that Iraq’s largest Sunni Arab political bloc has ended a nearly yearlong boycott of the Shiite-led government. During the interview, an aide rushed into his office to deliver the news, eliciting a big smile from Petraeus and instructions to pass along his congratulations.

“It’s a very important step forward,” he said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide