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“The command doesn’t want to say that, but they cannot muster complex operations like they used to do in the past, nor sustain a level of operations like they have done in the past,” he said. “The effort in the north is to bring this to a culmination. I call it, ‘finish the al Qaeda.’ ”

However, he added that being a terrorist organization, al Qaeda “will never go completely away.”

In the current edition of the New Republic magazine, terrorism experts Paul Cruickshank and Peter Bergen, who has written a biography of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, document what they think is a pronounced shift by Muslims away from al Qaeda.

“Why have clerics and militants once considered allies by Al Qaeda’s leaders turned against them?” the two writers ask.

“To a large extent, it is because Al Qaeda and its affiliates have increasingly adopted the doctrine of takfir, by which they claim the right to decide who is a ‘true’ Muslim,” they write.

The authors note that al Qaeda’s suicide bombers have killed more than 10,000 Iraqis, most of them targeted simply for being Shi’ite.

“Recently, Al Qaeda in Iraq has turned its fire on Sunnis who oppose its diktats, a fact not lost on the Islamic world’s Sunni majority,” the authors wrote.

They argue that a significant event in the burgeoning anti-al Qaeda movement was the defection last year of Noman Benotman. A Libyan Muslim extremist, Benotman once worked to overthrow secular Arab governments, but now seeks peace in his home country.

In November, he sent a public letter to Ayman al-Zawahri calling on the al Qaeda No. 2 man to end terrorism operations around the world.

In raids this year, coalition forces have discovered kidnapped pre-teenage Iraqis being programed by al Qaeda for suicide bombings - perhaps a sign that it is more difficult to recruit foreigners.

“Foreign suicide bombers have fallen off in 2008 compared to 2007 rather significantly,” Gen. Keane said. “Motivation to come to Iraq is down in the Sunnis Arab states because many believe the [al Qaeda] operation in Iraq is a lost cause. Also it is well known that it is far more likely they will not accomplish the mission because [al Qaeda’s] capacity to receive them and protect them is diminished greatly.”