Friday, April 27, 2007

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said yesterday that al Qaeda terrorists are behind the recent spate of deadly car bombings and are now “public enemy No. 1” in the country.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told reporters at the Pentagon that while there is noticeable progress in fighting insurgents and terrorists, the struggle to stabilize the country is difficult and will require a continued commitment of American forces and other resources.

Al Qaeda in Iraq is “a very significant enemy,” Gen. Petraeus said.

“I think it is probably public enemy No. 1,” he said. “It is the enemy whose actions sparked the enormous increase in sectarian violence that did so much damage to Iraq in 2006, the bombing of the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, the gold-domed mosque there, the third-holiest Shia shrine. And it is the organization that continues to try to reignite not just sectarian violence but ethnic violence, as well, going after Iraqi Kurds in Nineveh province and Kirkuk and areas such as that as well.”

The number of foreign fighters in the group are in the “dozens” and they are arriving in the country “on a monthly basis,” he said, noting that U.S. and Iraqi forces have targeted the al Qaeda network in efforts to stop the flow.

Some Sunnis are turning against al Qaeda, although other Sunnis continue to fight the new Iraqi government and U.S. troops, the four-star general said a day after meeting members of Congress.

Asked the consequences of pullout of U.S. forces by this fall, Gen. Petraeus declined to comment directly on what he termed “the political minefields of various legislative proposals.”

“We are doing what we’re doing, increasing our forces, in response to an increase in sectarian violence that took place in the year 2006,” he said.

The presence of U.S. and Iraqi forces in neighborhoods, Gen. Petraeus said, has resulted in the reduction in killings, and an assessment of progress will be made in September.

“My sense is that there would be an increase in sectarian violence, a resumption of sectarian violence, were the presence of our forces and Iraqi forces at that time to be reduced and not to be doing what it is that they are doing right now,” he said.

Gen. Petraeus said Iranian backing for insurgents in Iraq is better understood as the result of interrogations of captured Iranian paramilitary forces. “They were provided substantial funding, training on Iranian soil, advanced explosive munitions and technologies as well as run-of-the-mill arms and ammunition, in some cases advice and in some cases even a degree of direction,” he said.

U.S. forces also recovered a 22-page memorandum from a captured Iranian computer that provided details on attack planning, preparation, approval process and conduct that led to five U.S. soldiers being killed in Karbala, he said.

“Our sense is that these records were kept so that they could be handed in to whoever it is that is financing them,” Gen. Petraeus said. “And there’s no question, again, that Iranian financing is taking place through the Quds force of the Iranian Republican Guards Corps.”

Seven Quds members are still in custody, he said.

Gen. Petraeus said success in Iraq “will take continued commitment, perseverance and sacrifice,” and warned that “this effort may get harder before it gets easier.”

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