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Petraeus: Al Qaeda remains 'wolf closest to the sled'

Although the top U.S. commander in Iraq says that the military has made substantial progress in its fight against the radical Islamic militants.

By Leslie SabbaghContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2007

FOB Caldwell, Iraq

Nearly a month after testifying before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus says that keeping pressure on Al Qaeda in Iraq is among the most pressing issues facing the US military here.

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General Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, spoke to a small group of reporters on Saturday at Forward Operating Base Caldwell in central Iraq, about 10 miles from the Iranian border. Among the challenges facing coalition forces there, the general listed the role of Iran, Shiite militias, strengthening Iraqi security forces, and working with the local and national government to meet the people's basic needs.

The Al Qaeda threat

Although Petraeus admitted that local militias are a problem and could potentially be a long-term issue, he said Al Qaeda remains "the wolf closest to the sled ... the enemy bent on causing the most sectarian violence, inflicting the most horrific casualties, and damaging the infrastructure in the most difficult way." He added that US forces were making progress, but they must continue to apply pressure on the terrorist group. "We have our teeth in them and we've got to keep them down," he said.

The actions against Al Qaeda are encouraging, but Petraeus says he is a realist. "There have been substantial gains, but Al Qaeda is like a fighter that's been knocked around, but still has enormous power and access to a variety of elements of the economy."

The way to affect Al Qaeda and the militias is to break up their financial network and the funding they can generate, he explained. And the surge of US forces, he said, seems to be working.

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend, Al Qaeda elements vowed to increase attacks on the US military, Iraqi forces, and the Sunni tribesmen who are cooperating with them. A car bombing in Kirkuk on Thursday, targeting a traffic police chief, killed at least seven and wounded at least 50.

However, overall violence, which has historically heightened during Ramadan, is at the lowest level in more than a year, according to Iraqi government and Pentagon figures. "Even the Iraqi government published that civilian deaths have been drastically reduced and other forms of violence are coming down."

Iran's involvement

Dealing with the porous Iranian border and tricky diplomacy issues remain problematic. Coalition forces have intercepted "quite a few missiles and components for EFPs [explosively formed projectiles] ... picked up in various locations in Baghdad, southeast of Baghdad, and elsewhere in the country. EFPs only come from Iran and are only used by militias, so [they are] a signature trademark of the militia extremists," Petraeus said.

While he stopped short of directly implicating the government of Iran in killing US servicemen, Petraeus noted that "Iranians are responsible for providing the weapons, training, funding, and, in some cases, the direction for operations that have indeed killed soldiers. Directly, they have guided certain operations, some back in January."