Al Qaeda is close to defeat in Iraq, US ambassador says
BAGHDAD - The US ambassador to Iraq said yesterday that Al Qaeda's network in the country has never been closer to defeat, and he praised Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his moves to rein in Shi'ite and Sunni militant groups.
Ryan Crocker's comments came as Iraqi forces have been conducting crackdowns on Al Qaeda militants in the northern city of Mosul and on Shi'ite militiamen in the southern city of Basra.
Thousands of Iraqi forces also moved into the Shi'ite militia stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad last week, imposing control for the first time in years. Government tanks were posted at major intersections, and soldiers have been scanning vehicles for insurgents and weapons and new checkpoints.
But truces with the powerful Mahdi Army militia that have calmed violence in Basra and paved the way for the Sadr City deployment have been strained in the past two days.
Supporters of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who heads the Mahdi Army, accused Maliki yesterday of seeking to eliminate their movement and warned that "dark clouds" hang over the truce.
Al Qaeda fighters or other Sunni insurgents struck back in Mosul yesterday. A roadside bomb in the city's Sumer neighborhood hit an Iraqi army patrol, destroying a vehicle and killing four soldiers, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Near Baqubah - where a US offensive last year targeted Al Qaeda in Iraq - gunmen assassinated a member of the local Awakening Council, a US-backed group of Sunni tribesmen who are fighting Al Qaeda. The attack occurred in the village of Had, north of Baghdad, police said.
US Ambassador Crocker spoke as he visited reconstruction projects in the southern city of Najaf.
"There is important progress for the Iraqi forces in confronting the Sunni and Shi'ite militias," he said, speaking Arabic to reporters. "The government, the prime minister are showing a clear determination to take on extremist armed elements that challenge the government's authority . . . no matter who these elements are."
"You are not going to hear me say that Al Qaeda is defeated, but they've never been closer to defeat than they are now," Crocker said.
The US military says attacks have dropped dramatically - down to an average of 41 a day across the country, the lowest rate since 2004 - amid the crackdowns and truces. The US military, backed by Sunni Arab tribal fighters, have scored successes in battling Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents in western parts of the country.
The Mosul sweep aims to dislodge the terror network from its most prominent remaining urban stronghold. The operation has met little opposition, suggesting that many Qaeda militants fled, intending to regroup elsewhere as they have in past crackdowns.
In Baghdad, three men attending a conference at the offices of the National Dialogue Front, a leading Sunni Arab political party, were killed when a bomb exploded under their car as they left the gathering, police said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Meanwhile, new tensions over the truces in Sadr City and Basra were sparked when Iraqi troops in Basra fired over the heads of Sadr followers gathering in a northern square for prayers. Iraqi police recently banned Sadr gatherings there after a large cache of weapons was found nearby.
Iraqi troops were deployed and when those gathering refused to disperse, the police fired rounds over their heads, witnesses said.
Iraqi police in Basra said one person was wounded, but Sadr officials contended that one person was killed.
Also Friday, Iraqi and US troops carried out a sweep in two Mahdi Army strongholds of western Baghdad, the Amil and Bayaa districts, arresting around 100 people, police officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Iraqi forces in the operation cordoned off a cultural center in Amil where Sadrists were gathering and arrested some worshipers, the officials said.
Sadrist lawmakers denounced the moves saying there was a "nationwide conspiracy against Friday prayers" and a government move to "eliminate" their movement. Sadrist lawmaker, Aqeel Abdul-Rahman, said the group was still committed to Sadr City truce.