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Gains are seen against insurgency

Zarqawi's death exposed fighters, US military says

BAGHDAD -- The US military claimed an advantage in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq yesterday, saying raids since the death of its leader have forced many of its foreign fighters out into the open to be captured or killed.

Major General William Caldwell, spokesman for US forces in Iraq, acknowledged Iraqi civilians were suffering most from the insurgency, accounting for 70 percent of all deaths and injuries, while the number of US casualties did not appear to be on the rise.

But he said the Americans gained momentum in their fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq after killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and have devoted a lot of resources to targeting his successor as leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

``There is no question, if we can take him down, that will just disrupt the organization . . . to the point where it would be ineffective for a long period of time," Caldwell said. ``It is very disorganized right now. And it is very disrupted right now."

He said coalition and Iraqi security forces had captured or killed 57 foreign fighters this month.

``The reason we were able to pick up and track some of these mid-level people . . . in the last few weeks is because they've been forced to conduct meetings, to get out and be more visible, because their system has been so disrupted," he said. ``And that has given us the opportunities to find them, track them, and go get them."

On Wednesday, Iraqi authorities said they had captured an Al Qaeda suspect from Tunisia who allegedly bombed a Shi'ite shrine earlier this year, setting off a spasm of violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Caldwell said Yousri Fakher Mohammed Ali, also known as Abu Qudama, was captured May 20 after he was seriously wounded in a clash with security forces north of Baghdad. Haitham Sabah Shaker Mohammed al-Badri, the alleged Iraqi mastermind of the Feb. 22 attack on the shrine in Samarra, remains at large.

A Web statement in the name of Iraqi insurgents yesterday denied Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie's claim that Al Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for the bombing.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization for Iraqi insurgents that includes Al Qaeda in Iraq, said al-Rubaie ``lied in claiming that those arrested belonged to the Al Qaeda in Iraq organization." It was not possible to verify the statement's authenticity .

While cracking down on terror groups, the Iraqi government has offered an olive branch to the Sunni-dominated insurgency, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announcing a national reconciliation plan and reaching out to militants with an amnesty proposal.

The amnesty would not absolve those who have killed Iraqis or American coalition troops.

Insurgent and government officials said on Wednesday that 11 Sunni militant groups had offered an immediate halt to all attacks -- including those on American troops -- if the United States agreed to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq in two years.

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