U.S. Military Calls Al-Qaeda in Iraq 'Principal Threat'

Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said al-Qaeda in Iraq is behind most suicide blasts. (Pool Photo By Chris Hondros)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 12, 2007

BAGHDAD, July 11 -- U.S. military officials on Wednesday said they expected the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to "lash out and stage spectacular attacks" and fuel sectarian violence in response to an ongoing U.S. offensive north of Baghdad.

Calling al-Qaeda in Iraq "the principal threat" to Iraqis, Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, the chief U.S. military spokesman, said the group was the main focus of the U.S. security campaign. Like other U.S. officials in recent weeks, Bergner stressed that al-Qaeda in Iraq is supported by the organization led by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an assertion that intelligence analysts have disputed.

"Al-Qaeda senior leadership does provide direction to al-Qaeda in Iraq," Bergner told reporters. "They do establish and provide resourcing and support the network," he added, noting that Zawahiri recently released a video seeking international recruits for the war in Iraq.

Analysts and intelligence officials say that al-Qaeda in Iraq is just one of many Sunni and Shiite organizations fighting for power and against the U.S. occupation, and that al-Qaeda in Iraq is smaller than many other insurgent groups. The analysts say that bin Laden's organization provides more inspiration than direction to Sunni fighters in Iraq.

Bergner defended the focus on al-Qaeda in Iraq. "They are clearly the main accelerant in sectarian violence and the greatest source of these spectacular attacks that are killing innocent Iraqis in such large numbers," Bergner said. "Their numbers are very small, but the effect is very large."

For the past three weeks, U.S. forces have been battling al-Qaeda in Iraq in and around Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Bergner said U.S. forces were also staging operations against the group in Mosul to the north as well as in Ramadi in western Anbar province in an attempt to stop fleeing fighters from regrouping and attacking in other areas.

Bergner said al-Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for 80 to 90 percent of the suicide bombings in Iraq, many of them carried out by foreigners. The U.S. military, he said, had killed or captured 26 high-level leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq during May and June.

Sixty to 80 foreign fighters enter Iraq each month to join al-Qaeda in Iraq, mainly through Syria, Bergner said. He added that "facilitators" with links to bin Laden's group smuggled in foreign fighters and arms for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Syria has long denied that it is a gateway for foreign combatants.

Meanwhile Wednesday, kidnappers freed Hannelore Marianne Krause, 61, a German who has lived in Iraq for more than 40 years, German officials said. She and her son, Sinan, were abducted from their Baghdad home Feb. 6 by a group that demanded the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. Her son has not been released.

In southwest Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded at an intersection, killing one civilian and wounding three, police said.

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Dahlia Farooq contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company