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Wednesday, March 5, 2008       Take a Stand      Free Headline Alerts

Petraeus: Al Qaida trying to 'come back in' — 'We can feel it'

BAGHDAD — U.S. military officials said there will be no significant reduction in coalition troops in the Baghdad area as part of an effort to stop the Al Qaida offensive in northern Iraq.

They said Al Qaida was trying to reenter Baghdad and reverse its losses in 2007, Middle East Newsline reported.

"Al Qaida is trying to come back in," U.S. military commander Gen. David Petraeus said. "We can feel it and see it, and what we're trying to do is rip out any roots before they can get deeply into the ground."

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The general said Al Qaida was turning to women suicide bombers because the insurgency network failed to drive car bombs through military and police checkpoints.

"Al Qaida is incredibly resilient, and they are receiving people and supplies through Syria — although numbers through Syria are down as much as 50 percent," Petraeus said.

Petraeus said he has ordered U.S. and other coalition forces to help eradicate Al Qaida in the northern city of Mosul and province of Ninevah. But the general said he would not risk the gains achieved in the Baghdad and Anbar provinces for the operation in the north.

"The key is to hang on to what you've got," Petraeus said on March 2. "You cannot, in your eagerness to go after something new, start to play 'Whack-a-mole' again. You have to hang onto the areas you've cleared; you have to have that plan to do before you go."

During a tour by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Petraeus said attacks in Iraq have dropped to a level not seen since 2005.

Still, Al Qaida remains the biggest security threat in Iraq, officials said. They cited the Al Qaida presence in the Diyala and Tigris River valleys, Mosul and the surrounding Ninevah province.

"Analysts have said that while Baghdad is critical for Al Qaida to win in Iraq, Mosul and its area is critical for their survival," Petraeus said.

Brig. Gen. Raymond Thomas, deputy commander of Multinational Division-North, said U.S. and Iraqi forces were moving slowly against Al Qaida in Mosul, the source of up to two-thirds of attacks throughout Iraq. Thomas said Al Qaida operatives forced out of other strongholds in the north were making their way to Mosul.

"We're now forcing the enemy, boxing them in into areas, that they otherwise had free play in the city," Thomas said on March 3. "We've seized the initiative, and we're slowly but surely eliminating their toehold in the city."

Thomas said anti-Al Qaida operations in Mosul would continue for at least several more months. He said the Iraq Army — with about 20,000 soldiers in his seven-province command — was leading about 20 percent of joint missions.

"We're probably at about the 80-20 measure right now of coalition- to Iraqi-led operations," Thomas said. "But you see that growing every day, and it's in line with the capability that the Iraqis are demonstrating."


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