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As Al Qaeda moves fight to Syria, violence in Iraq drops sharply

After Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters left Iraq to join the Syrian rebellion, violence has dropped in Iraq, in some areas by as much as 50 percent in just a few months.

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"For some time now Al Qaeda members have been heading toward Syria to fight there, and as a result violence has gone down and we witness a much smaller number of operations carried out, overall, in Iraq," Col. Yahya al Ubaidi, an Iraqi intelligence officer, told McClatchy. He said violence had dropped throughout Iraq since late last year.

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Iskander Witwit, the deputy chairman of Parliament's security committee, said the nature of some of the attacks in Syria had alerted Iraqi officials months ago to the likelihood that Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters had transferred their efforts to the anti-Assad cause.

"Their activities in Syria are clear to the eyes of all who know their hallmark: the bombings, the random killing, but the suicide bombings especially," Witwit said.

The result, he said, was that "operations carried out by Al Qaeda have dropped off in all of Iraq, but especially in Ninewah, where they had a large and clear presence."

He described the Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters as "preoccupied with their new jihad in Syria." 

Local officials in Ninewah pointed out, however, that violence still takes place in the province, driven by local political rivalries.

"The events in Syria have direct bearing on security in Iraq, no one can deny that," said Abdulraheem al Shammary, the chairman of the security committee in Mosul. "However, we cannot say that violence has stopped because Al Qaeda fighters have left Iraq and gone to Syria. Violence has not stopped; it has dropped off."

The anti-Assad revolt began nearly a year ago as peaceful demonstrations demanding political change that were met with fierce government repression. The United Nations estimated that government security forces had killed at least 5,400 Syrians before it stopped keeping count because it said it had no reliable way to gather the numbers.

The anti-Assad movement has become increasingly violent in recent months, however, as frustrated opposition forces, bolstered by defections from Assad's military, have taken up arms, fighting pitched battles with security troops in Homs and other cities. On Feb. 11, gunmen assassinated the head of the military hospital in Damascus, the first killing of a military officer in the capital.

The Syrian government claims that 2,000 security officers and soldiers have been killed since the uprising began last March.

Iraqi officials said they thought that many of the Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters who'd left Iraq were foreigners.

"Formerly, Syrians used to come to fight in Iraq, but now they are fighting in Syria," Adnan al Asadi, Iraq's acting minister of interior, said Feb. 2 in comments distributed to McClatchy last week.

Asadi also said that weapons were being smuggled from Iraq into Syria across the countries' nearly 400-mile-long common border, and that demand for assault rifles was so high that the price had risen nearly 10-fold.

Mudhir al Janabi, a member of Parliament's security committee, bristled at any suggestion that Iraqis are among those traveling to Syria.

"Iraq has no history of extremism. It never tolerated camps for training religious extremists before 2003. It does not export extremist-related violence," he said. "Let those who came from other countries and brought the violence with them go back. All we want is to be left alone, to lick our wounds and put our efforts into rebuilding our country."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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