- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus yesterday called al Qaeda the “wolf closest to the shed” and said he disagrees with Democrats’ calls for an extensive withdrawal of troops from Iraq by next year.

“I did spend a fair amount of time the past few days talking about the consequences of an al Qaeda-Iraq sanctuary in that country, about the fact that we believe that al Qaeda-Iraq is off-balance,” Gen. Petraeus told reporters at the National Press Club.

“They are the organization that has carried out the most horrific attacks in Iraq and in particular those that have sparked the much greater ethno-sectarian violence.”

The U.S. commander in Iraq and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, fresh off of two days of Capitol Hill testimony, said Iranian activity in Iraq is contributing to sophisticated attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces.

“Again, there’s no question where they have come from,” Gen. Petraeus said. “And the evidence is very, very clear. We captured it when we captured Qais Khazali, the Lebanese Hezbollah deputy commander, and others, and it’s in black and white.”

Gen. Petraeus said he would be uncomfortable calling for a troop reduction larger than the 30,000 he recommended to President Bush, who is expected to endorse it in a prime time address tonight.

Mr. Crocker reminded reporters that three of his past six years in the Foreign Service have been in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq and said al Qaeda’s influence in the region should not be ignored.

“Those are all fronts in the fight against al Qaeda,” Mr. Crocker said. “We have to assume that anywhere al Qaeda can find operating room, space, ability to organize, consolidate they’re going to use that to come after us.”

U.S. operations in Iraq over the past year have yielded results, said Gen. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. He added that the troop surge helped reduce al Qaeda’s influence in the Euphrates River valley, Anbar province and Ramadi, and that “Baqouba has been cleared.”

He noted that al Qaeda’s bombing of the golden-domed al-Askari mosque in Samarra last year on Feb. 22 nearly tore the fabric of Iraq society apart. It was an attempt by al Qaeda to destabilize the fragile country and its fledgling political system, he said.

“We don’t know what would happen if al Qaeda had a sanctuary in Iraq from which they could presumably export violence, perhaps train others,” he added.

“We just don’t know. Would it be focused in the Levant, in the Maghreb, in — back in Afghanistan, Western Europe, the United States?” he said. The first two refer to the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and northwest Africa, respectively.

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