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US official: Al-Qaida close to defeat

BAGHDAD - The U.S. ambassador to Iraq said Saturday that al-Qaida's network in the country has never been closer to defeat, and he praised Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his moves to rein in Shiite and Sunni militant groups.

Ryan Crocker's comments came as Iraqi forces have been conducting crackdowns on al-Qaida militants in the northern city of Mosul and on Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra. Thousands of Iraqi forces also moved into the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad last week imposing control for the first time in years.

But truces with the powerful Mahdi Army militia that have calmed violence in Basra and paved the way for the Sadr City deployment have been strained in the past two days.

Supporters of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the Mahdi Army, accused al-Maliki on Saturday of seeking to eliminate their movement and warned that 'dark clouds' hang over the truce.

Al-Qaida fighters or other Sunni insurgents struck back in Mosul on Saturday. A roadside bomb in the city's Sumer neighborhood hit an Iraqi army patrol, destroying a vehicle and killing four soldiers, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Near Baqouba - where a U.S. offensive last year targeted al-Qaida in Iraq - gunmen assassinated a member of the local Awakening Council, a U.S.-backed group of Sunni tribesmen who are fighting al-Qaida. The attack occurred in the village of Had, north of Baghdad, police said.

U.S Ambassador Crocker spoke as he visited reconstruction projects in the southern city of Najaf.

'There is important progress for the Iraqi forces in confronting the Sunni and Shiite militias,' he said, speaking Arabic to reporters. 'The government, the prime minister are showing a clear determination to take on extremist armed elements that challenge the government's authority ... no matter who these elements are.

'You are not going to hear me say that al-Qaida is defeated, but they've never been closer to defeat than they are now,' Crocker said.

The U.S. military says attacks have dropped dramatically - down to an average of 41 a day across the country, the lowest rate since 2004 - amid the crackdowns and truces. The U.S. military, backed by Sunni Arab tribal fighters, have scored successes in battling al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents in western parts of the country.

The Mosul sweep aims to dislodge the terror network from its most prominent remaining urban stronghold. The operation has met little opposition, suggesting that many al-Qaida militants fled, intending to regroup elsewhere as they have in past crackdowns.

In Baghdad, three men attending a conference at the offices of the National Dialogue Front, a leading Sunni Arab political party, were killed when a bomb exploded under their car as they left the gathering, police said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.