/ 6 December 2007

US commander says al-Qaeda still a dangerous foe

Al-Qaeda Sunni Arab militants remain a dangerous foe in Iraq despite a decline in violence, the commander of United States forces said on Thursday, a day after the deadliest bombing in Baghdad since September.

”We have to be careful not to get feeling too successful,” General David Petraeus told reporters before meeting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Iraq.

”We see this as requiring a continued amount of very tough work. We see al-Qaeda as a very, very dangerous adversary still able to carry out attacks and an adversary that we must continue to pursue,” Petraeus said.

On Wednesday car bombs struck four cities, killing at least 23 people. One of the bombs — near a Shi’ite mosque in central Baghdad across the Tigris River from the ”Green Zone” compound where Gates was meeting Iraqi officials — killed 15 and wounded 35, making it the deadliest attack in the city since September.

An al-Qaeda-linked militant group issued a threat on the internet earlier this week vowing to launch a wave of car bomb attacks and strikes on Iraqi security forces.

Petraeus said al-Qaeda was likely to attempt spectacular attacks in a last-ditch push against US and Iraqi forces.

”They have certainly demonstrated the continued ability to carry out car bomb attacks, suicide-vest attacks, suicide car bomb attacks and so forth,” he said.

Despite Wednesday’s bloodshed, violence in Iraq has reduced dramatically over the past few months. Gates sounded an optimistic note after his meetings with Iraqi officials.

”More than ever, I believe that the goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq is within reach,” he told a news conference less than an hour after the Baghdad blast.

”We need to be patient. We also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish so that all Iraqis can enjoy peace and prosperity.”

But Washington has also expressed frustration with what it regards as the slow pace of political efforts by Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government to enact a series of measures aimed at reconciling Shi’ite and minority Sunni Arabs.

Slow progress

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who visited Iraq last week, said he thought Iraqis were seizing the opportunity to make political gains.

”They’re just doing it I think sometimes a little more slowly than we would wish. And we are impatient and it’s hard,” he told the Public Broadcasting Service’s NewsHour programme.

Iraqi leaders ”understand their international support is not infinite in duration and that people who wish them well and who want to be supportive nonetheless can reasonably ask that they work on these things as rapidly as they possibly can”, he said.

The countrywide decline in violence has been attributed to a ”surge” of 30 000 additional US troops fully deployed since June, as well as agreements between US forces and Sunni Arab sheikhs who turned against al-Qaeda.

Washington is now paying about 50 000 mainly Sunni Arab men to conduct neighbourhood patrols. The Shi’ite-led government said on Wednesday it plans to put 45 000 of them on its payroll by mid-2008, raising the prospect of many former foes going to work for the authorities in Baghdad.

In August the main US adversary on the other side of Iraq’s sectarian divide, Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, also declared a ceasefire of his Mehdi Army militia.

US defence officials say they believe al-Sadr’s aim in declaring the truce was to weed criminal elements out of his group by revealing which splinter groups were not loyal to him.

Petraeus did not say whether he believed al-Sadr would extend the six-month ceasefire, which will expire early next year.

”We have had quite a bit of dialogue and discussion with a variety of interlocutors from [the al-]Sadr movement and those who talk to senior members, and Iraqi leaders needless to say would like to see the ceasefire continue as well,” Petraeus said. – Reuters