- Associated Press - Thursday, September 29, 2011

WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq said Thursday there has been a sharp decline in the number of foreign fighters entering from neighboring Syria to carry out attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“We’ve seen a dramatic drop off in the foreign fighter flow,” Army Maj. Gen. David Perkins told reporters at the Pentagon.

Speaking via a video feed from his base in Tikrit, Perkins said he has seen no clear evidence that the decline is connected to a 6-month-old anti-government uprising in Syria. He said Iraqi security forces have gotten better at border protection, in part because they are sharing intelligence more effectively.

Northern Iraq, and particularly the city of Mosul and the Tigris River valley area, has for years been a hub for al Qaeda in Iraq. Perkins asserted that the group has been greatly weakened and is now suffering from a lack of financial support from beyond Iraq’s borders. That has led to internal discord, he said.

“Instead of foreign aid coming in in large amounts, they are resorting to what I would call extortion, black marketing, robbery of jewelry stores” and are “devolving more into almost gang, mafia-like activities,” he said, adding that in some cases al Qaeda in Iraq leaders are “turning against each other.”

Perkins also said that most of the 5,000 U.S. troops based in northern Iraq will be gone by the end of October. All U.S. forces are to leave by the end of the year, under a 2008 U.S.-Iraq agreement, although the two sides are now discussing the possibility of keeping some troops in Iraq beyond 2011.