By Ernesto Londoño
Monday, August 9, 2010; A08
BAGHDAD -- On the eve of the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, extremist groups "are very much alive," according to the U.S. Special Forces commander here.
Though weakened by the deaths of top leaders and a drop-off in foreign funding, al-Qaeda in Iraq's "cellular structure" remains "pretty much intact," Brig. Gen. Patrick M. Higgins said in his first interview since taking command in Baghdad last fall.
Members of al-Qaeda in Iraq have increasingly resorted to kidnapping and extortion to stay afloat, the general said.
"The line between terrorism and criminality has blurred so much that some of these guys are just outsourcing," Higgins said Saturday. "We've seen indications that some of these guys for a price will put together a [roadside bomb] or do an assassination."
Although al-Qaeda in Iraq no longer appears capable of carrying out the type of massive bombings that targeted prominent government buildings last year, the Sunni extremist organization and other groups continue to conduct attacks almost daily.
On Sunday, at least seven people were killed in the western province of Anbar in a bombing that targeted a police convoy, Iraqi officials said, the latest in a recent string of attacks on police officers.
A day earlier, at least 43 people were killed in two bombings in the southern city of Basra.
Ameen Ali, a 24-year-old college student who witnessed the Basra attack, said residents were furious because they think security forces are more concerned with quelling protests over electricity shortages than pursing insurgents.
"Now when I think of what happened, I say to myself: Why should I love or stay in this country?" he said.
The recent violence has complicated a period of political uncertainty, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his chief rival in the March 7 parliamentary elections, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, fight over who is entitled to form the next government.
Higgins predicted that Iraqi officials would ultimately form a representative government "in their own Iraqi way, on their own Iraqi timeline."
But he said the attacks during this period have the potential to be particularly destabilizing.
"They're the same attacks, but they take on a greater sense of gravity," Higgins said. The general said he worries that Iraqis are thinking, "Oh look, the government hasn't formed and we have all these attacks going on. If we had a government, we'd have better security."
When the U.S. military draws down to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of the month, the U.S. Special Operations command here will remain at about 4,500-strong. Higgins said U.S. commandos have no plans to conduct unilateral counterterrorism operations in the months ahead, and he said their Iraqi counterparts have become more proficient.
"We've got them to a level of what I call good enough-ness," he said. "Tactically, they are very sound."
The Iraqi commandos will continue to need U.S. support gathering and analyzing intelligence and putting together cases to support prosecutions, he said.
Iraq's main counterterrorism unit reports directly to Maliki, a setup many in the previous parliament protested. As a result, the unit operates with no legal mandate and subsists on funds diverted from the Defense Ministry.
Higgins said that model is problematic. "There is going to be this tin-cup mentality for [the counterterrorism unit] until they're formally, constitutionally recognized as part of the Iraqi system," he said.
Special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.