Sunday, July 20, 2008

BAGHDAD | After intense U.S. assaults, al Qaeda may be considering shifting focus to its original home base in Afghanistan, where American casualties are running higher than in Iraq, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Saturday.

“We do think that there is some assessment ongoing as to the continued viability of al Qaeda’s fight in Iraq,” Gen. David Petraeus told the Associated Press in an interview at his office at the U.S. Embassy.

Whatever the result, Gen. Petraeus said no one should expect al Qaeda to give up entirely in Iraq.

“They’re not going to abandon Iraq. They’re not going to write it off. None of that,” he said. “But what they certainly may do is start to provide some of those resources that would have come to Iraq to Pakistan, possibly Afghanistan.”

He said there are signs that foreign fighters recruited by al Qaeda to do battle in Iraq are being diverted to the largely ungoverned areas in Pakistan from which the fighters can cross into Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have pressed Pakistan for more than a year to halt the cross-border infiltration. It remains a major worry not only for the war in Afghanistan but also for Pakistan’s stability.

Discussing al Qaeda in cautious terms, Gen. Petraeus said he is not certain of the reliability of the intelligence information about the terrorist network’s latest thinking. He was adamant, however, that until now al Qaeda has seen Iraq as its best opportunity for establishing a militant Islamic state closer to the Persian Gulf.

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

He offered a mostly upbeat assessment of conditions in Iraq just weeks before he is to make a recommendation on whether to further reduce U.S. troop levels. Gen. Petraeus said the country is showing fresh signs of promise not only on the security front, where insurgent attacks are down sharply, but also politically.

Gen. Petraeus declined to say what he might recommend to President Bush regarding further U.S. troop reductions. The assessment, he said, is based on a range of factors, including the prospects for Iraqi government approval of legislation required before provincial elections can be held this fall.

Gen. Petraeus also commented on 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. From a peak of 80 to 100 foreign fighters entering Iraq each month, the total has dropped to as low as 20 per month, he said.

Gen. 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 and Pakistan as well as in Iraq. He is to be replaced in Baghdad by Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who until February had served as the No. 2 commander in Iraq.

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